Her style and excess made her the Kim Kardashian of her day and now, for the first time in 200 years, Marie-Antoinette’s lavish jewellery collection is not only on show but up for auction, meaning a piece of history could be yours, says Edwina Ings-Chambers.
In March 1791, about two and a half years before she met with the French Revolution’s guillotine, Marie-Antoinette, wife of the French King Louis XVI, spent a night wrapping up her jewels in cotton and placing them in a wooden chest. She was aided in the task by her trusted lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan, as they busied themselves in the Tuileries Palace where they had been ensconced since the revolutionary mob forced them out of the Palace of Versailles. The gems were to be sent under safe passage to Brussels and from there went on to Vienna. The royal family had hoped to flee France too, but, as we know, it was not to be. An attempted escape in June that year was scuppered and, in August, another box of jewellery was smuggled out. Years later, the contents were reclaimed by Marie-Antoinette and Louis’s only surviving child, their daughter Marie-Thérèse, who became known as Madame Royale. (Louis XVI had been executed nine months before Marie-Antoinette and their remaining son, Louis-Charles, died in prison in 1795 at the age of ten.)
Fast-forward to September 2018 at Sotheby’s in London’s New Bond Street. It’s here that YOU magazine was able to photograph a breathtaking selection of these former royal baubles because they are coming up for auction. As you would expect of pieces with a royal pedigree, they are glorious. There’s a diamond pendant that hosts a natural pearl of ‘exceptional size’ and is estimated to fetch £770,000 to £1.5 million – this was definitely a Marie-Antoinette-owned treasure. Then there’s a three-strand necklace comprising 119 natural pearls and valued at £150,000 to £230,000. It is, says Daniela Mascetti chairman of Sotheby’s jewellery Europe and senior international specialist, ‘a quite amazing’ collection. And that pearl drop, she says, is remarkable in itself for its size and lustre. ‘Even back then it would have been hugely valuable. Until the mid 18th century a pearl was the best way to display wealth and status, perhaps even more than diamonds.’
But, of course, this sale isn’t just about rocks. It’s a celebrity sale. ‘Nobody really cares about Louis XVI; he was not the best king nor the worst,’ says historian Vincent Meylan, who is working on a book about Marie-Antoinette’s jewellery. ‘But everyone has an opinion about his wife.’ Her infamous ‘Let them eat cake!’ line – supposedly uttered when she was told the poor were rebelling because they had no bread to eat – still haunts her, even though it’s widely believed now that she never said it. It symbolises her lavishness and supposed lack of awareness. ‘There’s a 50/50 split between those who think she was a martyr of the revolution and those who believe she was a stupid woman spending France’s money on fashion and jewellery,’ says Meylan.
Marie-Antoinette was renowned for her love of jewellery and the vastness of her collection – and the provenance ‘couldn’t be better’ for pieces in this auction. ‘She had the biggest collection of jewellery of any French queen,’ says Meylan, perhaps rivalled only by Empress Joséphine, wife of Napoleon 1, but if anything he would put them in joint first place. ‘We know that she received two million francs-worth of jewellery from the French king when she got married. And she came from Austria with a marriage contract which mentions that her mother was to give her 500,000 francs-worth. That’s a lot. No other French queen ever received that much when she married.’
On top of that, says Meylan, Louis gave her jewellery and she bought herself a diamond ring and brooch costing 500,000 francs. As well as diamonds and pearls, she had a fondness for rubies, so much so that Louis gave her the ruby pieces from the French crown jewels.
Now these pieces are the decadent, lustrous remnants of her once sparkling life. This is as close as any of us can get to the former queen, who remains a symbol of fashion, style and excess – a precursor to the cult of personality; the Kim Kardashian of her time. ‘She’s fascinating,’ says Meylan. ‘And jewellery is always meaningful; it’s interesting what people do with it.’ Wear it, smuggle it, sell it – it’s something that can bedeck your life and be bartered for it.
It can also be handed down, as these pieces were. They form part of a consignment of royal jewels from the Bourbon Parma family to be auctioned in Geneva next month. For it was to her niece (and adopted daughter) Louise of France, Duchess of Parma, that Madame Royale bequeathed some of her jewellery inheritance. Louise in turn left them to her son, Robert 1, the last ruling Duke of Parma (1848 to 1907). They have remained in the family ever since, although the actual consigner for this sale remains a mystery. Now, if you have upwards of £22,000 you might be able to have a piece of it yourself.
Alternatively, before they are sold the jewels are doing one final tour around Sotheby’s international branches, and will be on exhibition in London next week, so we can all have our own small audience with the past.
Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in Geneva on 14 November. A selection, including pieces once owned by Marie-Antoinette, will be on view in its London galleries from 20-22 October at Sotheby’s.