THE FRENCH CROWN JEWELS PART 4: HISTORICAL VANDALISM
By 1875, the Third Republic was established in France- it was the most radical sitting government since that of the Terror established after 1789 and agitations by extreme right wing monarchists gunning for another Restoration only served to further polarise French society. In the National Assembly, the cry of “without a crown, no need for a king” began to gain currency.
Although the plan took some time to get off the ground, the sale was finally held in the Pavilion de Flore in the Louvre, on 12th-23rd May 1887. Everything was put up for sale. The surviving historic crowns were stripped of their stones, to be replaced with glass and sent to museums as historical curiosities. A few important stones, (such as the Cote de Bretagne spinel which had been part of the collection since the late Middle Ages) were arbitrarily held back and displayed in the Museum of Natural History. Likewise, the same happened to some of the liturgical instruments and vestments which were sent to cathedrals and abbeys throughout the country.
The sale inevitably attracted enormous interest- it was well attended by jewellers from all over the world, desperate to buy legendary gems, some on their own initiative and others on the instructions of rich patrons. The biggest winner was the American jewellers Tiffany and Co, who managed to acquire 24 of the 69 lots. Through them, some of the pieces made their way to some of the new millionaires of America’s Gilded Age. Van Cleef and Arpels acquired the Empress Josephine’s diamond diadem and Carl Faberge bought La Regente pearl, which he went on to sell to the fabulously rich Youssoupovs in his native Russia. The eighteen Mazarin diamonds, bequeathed to Louis XIV by his Cardinal First Minister, were mostly dispersed.
Most of the most important pieces were broken up and reset as fashion demanded- a great loss to the jewellery world, especially the Empress Eugenie’s fantastic yet realistic flower and bow brooch stomachers, which were the forerunner of what was to become known as the Garland Style. A few, however, have survived. The Empress Eugenie’s fabled pearl and diamond diadem was bought by the Thurn und Taxis family. The Duchesse d’Angouleme’s emerald and diamond tiara disappeared, to be rediscovered in the 1960s with its provenance forgotten. Her ruby and diamond bracelets survived intact but the rest of the marvellous parure is broken up, bar the tiara, which is thought to be owned by the Niarchos family, although this is unconfirmed.
Occasionally, stones from the 1792 theft and from the contents of Marie Antoinette’s jewel case entrusted to friends ahead of her failed escape in 1791 pop up now and again. Some of these stones are now famously housed in the Smythsonian Institute in Washington D.C. These include the ocean coloured Hope Diamond and Marie Antoinette’s huge drop diamond earrings. They have also been bequeathed pieces such as the Empress Josephine’s diamond necklace, as well as Marie Louise’s diadem. This has had its original emeralds replaced with turquoises- when the piece passed through the hands of Van Cleef and Arpels in the 1960s they removed the emeralds and sold them piecemeal, leaving the tiara a shadow of its former glory.
Marie Antoinette’s fabled pearls, which she had entrusted to Lady Sutherland, passed through that family by descent- it came up for auction in 2007 and failed to sell. Another strand of pearls though, which had also belonged to the doomed queen and which had been bought by Barbara Hutton, fetched $1.47 million when it was auctioned in 1999. With the demand for natural pearls soaring, goodness knows what it is worth today.
Even by contemporary assessments, the 1887 sale was not a success- it failed to bring in the expected revenues and in fact temporarily depressed the market by flooding it with so many important stones. The two important tiaras mentioned earlier, along with the ruby bracelets have been re-acquired for the French Nation by the subsequent Republics. They continue to claw back what they can, not always successfully, and always at a far higher cost than that which they received. These pieces are on permanent display at the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre.