Marie Antoinette’s jewellery collection goes under the hammer

Marie Antoinette's jewels
The jewels: never seen in public

The ill-fated queen’s diamond pendant is up for auction. Chris Carter reports.

Marie Antoinette was more than just a little fond of pearls. The problem was everybody else knew it. In fact, the Queen of France’s love of jewellery had already landed her in hot water with the people, when, in 1785, she became caught up in the so-called “Affair of the Diamond Necklace”, involving stolen jewels. Never mind that Marie Antoinette was most probably innocent of the scandal – she had been tried and condemned in the court of public opinion, and that was that. Her reputation never recovered and now the French Revolution was coming for her and her family. It was March 1791, and Marie Antoinette was packing her bags.

According to Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan, the Austrian royal spent an entire evening at the Tuileries Palace in Paris wrapping up her diamonds, rubies and pearls in cotton, and carefully placing them in a wooden chest – no doubt with one ear open to the streets outside her window. The chest went to Brussels, then ruled by her big sister, Maria Christina, for safe-keeping. She and her family headed for the border, only to be spotted before she could get there. She was dragged back to Paris, and executed in 1793.

Marie Antoinette did have one surviving daughter in Marie-Thérèse de France. Two years after her mother’s (and father’s) death, Madame Royale, as she was called, was released from solitary confinement around the time of her 17th birthday, and went to Austria. There, her cousin, the emperor, gave her the jewels her mother had so carefully stashed away. Decades later, at the age of 72, Marie-Thérèse died, leaving part of her precious inheritance to her niece, the Duchess of Parma, who in turn left them to her son, the last ruling Duke.

On 12 November, the jewellery supplemented with more recent additions, make their way to the auction block at Sotheby’s in Geneva. The “Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family” – “never before seen in public” (to the chagrin of the mob outside Marie Antoinette’s window) – “forms one of the most important royal jewellery collections ever to appear on the market”, says Daniela Mascetti, deputy chairman at Sotheby’s. “[They offer a] captivating insight into the lives of its owners going back hundreds of years.”

Many of the pieces in fact date to after the life of Marie Antoinette, such as a beautiful diamond tiara, valued at up to CHF 120,000 (£94,330), given to Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria by her great-uncle as a wedding present in 1903. And there’s the magnificent diamond bow brooch, adorned with a 6.89-carat Burmese ruby, valued at up to CHF 300,000, given to the same lucky recipient by her father two years later.

But just as in her heyday, the star of the show remains Marie Antoinette – or rather her stunning diamond pendant, supporting a huge natural pearl. It is expected to fetch up to CHF 2m. “The sensation of it nestled in my hand is not something I will ever forget”, says Annabel Davidson in the Daily Telegraph. “I felt like the Queen of France herself – if only for a moment.”


A sister’s revenge

A portrait of the future Charles II of England, aged 11, and another of his nine-year-old sister Mary, are heading for auction at Sotheby’s in London on 5 December. Both portraits, by the Flemish master, Anthony van Dyck, were painted in the summer of 1641, just months before the painter’s death at the age of 42. Van Dyck was a favourite of the children’s father, Charles I, thanks to his “unfailingly flattering portraits of the short, bandy-legged king”, says Caroline Davies in the Guardian. The portrait of the young prince of Wales is valued at £2m to £3m. The portrait of Mary, future mother of William III, painted to celebrate her marriage to the 15-year-old Prince William of Orange, is expected to fetch considerably less – between £600,000 and £800,000.

However, the next day, the young princess has her revenge at rivals Christie’s, also in London. There, the “prime version” of van Dyck’s portrait of Mary (pictured), in the exact same pose, but in front of a more polished background, and wearing a brighter, more silvery dress, is expected to sell for between £5m and £8m.

Perhaps the real winner in this auction battle between siblings is van Dyck. The artworks came “at the end of van Dyck’s career when he’s in huge demand”, Clementine Sinclair, head of Christie’s Old Master Paintings evening sale, told the Financial Times. “He’s at the height of his powers.”


Auctions

Going…

Frank Sinatra portrait by Norman RockwellArtworks, furniture and entertainment memorabilia from the collection of Frank and Barbara Sinatra will be on sale at Sotheby’s in New York on 4 December. The lots include copies of the scripts for the films From Here to Eternity (1953) and Ocean’s 11 (1960), valued at up to $9,000 and $15,000 respectively. Frank Sinatra’s 1973 All-American Collegiate Golf Foundation John F Kennedy Award, a bust of the late president, is valued at up to $2,000. There is also a portrait of Sinatra by Norman Rockwell from 1973 (pictured), set to fetch up to $120,000.

Gone…

The earliest-known studio recording by David Bowie sold for £39,360 (including buyers’ premium) – almost four times the estimate – at Omega Auctions earlier this month. Rejected by Decca Records, the demo tape from 1963 features a 16-year-old Bowie, then known by his birth name David Jones, singing I Never Dreamed with his first band, The Konrads. The band’s drummer, David Hadfield, put the 18-minute recording up for auction after finding it in an old bread basket in his loft. Other sketches, photographs and documents from Bowie’s time with the band fetched £17,130.