Conspicuous consumption is associated with one glittering monarch above all others: the infelicitous Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. From the rooms and rooms and rooms of furniture and decorative arts that filled Versailles and Fontainebleau, to the hundreds of gowns, shoes, and wigs that she bedecked herself with, the queen of Louis XVI was no stranger to the finer things in life. This spirit of excess was notably channeled by director Sofia Coppola in the over-the-top shopping montage in her 2006 film starring Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, set to the tune of “I Want Candy.”
It’s also true that the “affair of the diamond necklace”—a court intrigue in which the queen was (probably wrongfully) accused of purchasing an absurdly expensive piece of jewelry through crooked intermediaries—was one of the key moments that began to turn the people of France against the monarchy, thus hastening the events of the French Revolution.
This begs the question, then, what exactly happened to all that stuff when the engine fires of the French Revolution were stoked and burning at full blast? Well, plenty of it ended up in museums the world over of course, but what about the smaller, most portable of the valuables? Things like… the jewelry?
It turns out that before Marie Antoinette lost her head, she had the foresight to send many of her precious jewels back to her family. And now, on Nov. 14, in Geneva, Switzerland, Sotheby's will be auctioning off an unprecedented amount of jewels with royal provenance, 10 of which can be traced back to Marie Antoinette herself. These treasures have not been seen publicly in nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
In a press release, Sotheby’s spins the harrowing tale of how some of these jewels escaped the Revolution:
“In March 1791, King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their children began to prepare their escape from France. According to accounts written by Marie Antoinette’s lady in waiting, Madame Campan, the queen spent an entire evening in the Tuileries Palace wrapping all of her diamonds, rubies and pearls in cotton and placing them in a wooden chest. In the following days, the jewels were sent to Brussels, which was under the rule of the queen’s sister, Archduchess Marie-Christine and which was home to Count Mercy Argenteau. The count, the former Austrian Ambassador to Paris, was one of the only men who had retained the queen’s trust. It was he who took delivery of the jewels and sent them on to Vienna, into the safekeeping of the Austrian Emperor, Marie Antoinette’s nephew.”
(This recalls a similar story in which the Hope diamond was safely mailed via United States Postal Service to the Smithsonian when Harry Winston gifted it to the museum in 1958. All these fabulous jewels traveling so far in a wooden chest, and ultimately being saved for the ages, is astounding.)
After Marie Antoinette was executed in 1793, her only surviving child, Marie-Thérèse de France, was released and sent to Austria, where she was ultimately given her mother’s jewelry. Having no children of her own, she then bequeathed the Marie Antoinette jewelry to an adopted daughter and niece, and thus the jewels ended up in the royal family of the Duke of Parma, where they have been ever since.
Of the jewels that Sotheby’s Geneva is offering at auction, it’s no wonder that the jewels of Marie Antoinette nearly all consist of diamonds and pearls. Remember, in the 18th century, natural pearls were valued far more than diamonds because they were rarer, as the pearl cultivation technology we have today did not exist until the early 20th century. Thus, the lot from this sale that is getting the most attention is a natural pearl pendant, suspended from a diamond bow. Its estimated auction price is $1 million to $2 million, but considering the extreme rarity of natural pearls of this size and its unrivaled provenance, I’m sure the estimate will be obliterated. Elizabeth Taylor’s pearl La Peregrina, a pearl of great fame and size to hit to auction block in 2011, sold for about $11 million in New York.
Other highlights include several diamond bow brooches; natural pearl earrings and necklaces; a gold, enamel, and pearl watch; a portrait miniature ring depicting Marie Antoinette herself; and even a diamond ring with a lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair inside.
The sale is rounded out beautifully with jewels from the Bourbon Parma family, including a fancy orange diamond ring, several diamond tiaras, diamond-and-emerald-encrusted orders of the Saint-Esprit and of the Golden Fleece, diamond girandole earrings, and brooches featuring rubies and sapphires as big as glistening raspberries and blueberries.
Benoit Repellin, a Sotheby’s jewelry specialist based in Geneva, had this to share with The Daily Beast: “We have known about this collection for several years and I remember the emotion the first time I saw the jewels. Opening the cases revealing these amazing pieces with handwritten labels mentioning the provenance: “perles de Marie Antoinette,” “grandes boucles d’oreille girandoles de Marie-Thérèse de Savoie,” and reading the inventory of Princess Marie Anne de Bourbon Parma listing the details and origin of each jewel, was probably one of the most moving moments of my time at Sotheby’s. I hope the sale with its breathtaking results will be another one!”
Stay tuned for Sotheby’s auction results and record-breaking bidding coming out of Geneva this Wednesday, Nov. 14.