With a revolution raging in France in March 1791, Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI prepared for their escape. The queen spent an evening carefully wrapping her most precious jewels in cotton and then packed them neatly into a wooden chest. The diamond, ruby and pearl treasures were secretly shipped to Vienna in the care of Count Mercy Argentau, a loyal retainer to the queen.
“The jewels made it, but unfortunately, she did not,” Daniela Mascetti, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Jewelry Europe, told The New York Post.
Three months later, the royal family was captured in Varennes as they were trying to leave France. Both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were imprisoned and executed by guillotine in 1793. Their son died in captivity shortly afterwards at the age of 10.
Their last surviving child, Marie-Thérèse, was finally allowed to flee to Vienna after serving three years in solitary confinement. There, the teenage princess reclaimed her mother's jewels that had been kept safe by her cousin, the Austrian Emperor Francis II.
The jewelry remained in the queen's family for the next 200 years and has never been seen by the public — until now.
Earlier this week, Sotheby's New York put on display several jewels from the collection of Marie Antoinette. Visitors to the landmark store were even permitted to try on the regal pieces, which will be offered for sale at Sotheby's Geneva on November 14. The jewels are currently on an international tour, with stops in Dubai, New York, London, Singapore, Taipei and Geneva.
The highest-value item in the group is a natural pearl and diamond pendant set with an oval diamond in a diamond bow motif. The slightly baroque drop-shaped natural saltwater pearl measures approximately 15.90mm x 18.35mm x 25.85mm. The piece carries a pre-sale estimate of $1 million to $2 million.
A second notable lot from the collection is a fabulous necklace featuring 119 natural pearls. It is composed of three rows of slightly graduated pearls measuring from approximately 7.3mm to 9.3mm. Interestingly, 116 were confirmed by a European gem lab to be natural saltwater pearls, while three were found to be natural freshwater pearls. The necklace is adorned with a star-motif clasp set with cushion-shaped, circular-cut and rose-cut diamonds. Estimated price: $200,000 to $300,000.
Marie Antoinette's jewelry is part of a larger auction collection comprised of pieces from the Bourbon Parma family — a family linked to the royal dynasties of France, England, Spain, Austria, Holland and Italy.
"Every jewel is absolutely imbued with history," said Mascetti. "This extraordinary group of jewels offers a captivating insight into the lives of its owners going back hundreds of years. What is also striking is the inherent beauty of the pieces themselves: the precious gems they are adorned with and the exceptional craftsmanship they display are stunning in their own right."
Credits: Jewelry images courtesy of Sotheby's. Marie Antoinette portrait by Joseph Kreutzinger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.