A jewel belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette, undoubtedly has the grandest provenance of all in the jewellery realm. So few jewels from her personal collection exist today, especially in their original mounting that to actually see one is quite an experience. Sotheby’s has the honour and privilege of offering several jewels that belonged to the last Queen of France of the 18th century.
Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) possessed an enormous collection of jewels. Upon her marriage to the future King Louis XVI (1754-1793), the Archduchess Marie-Antoinette of Austria received jewels from both her mother, Empress Marie Therese, and her grand- father-in-law, King Louis XV: millions of livres worth of pearls, diamonds and rubies. Her collection was of course augmented during her reign.
With the French Revolution imminent, the royal family began planning their escape from Paris. Marie Antoinette’s jewels were sent ahead to the Pays Bas Autrichiens, which became Belgium. From there they were sent on to Vienna.
In her Mémoires, Madame Campan, the Queen’s first chambermaid, wrote : « Sa Majesté s’était établie avec moi dans un cabinet d’entresol donnant sur le jardin des Tuileries, et nous emballâmes dans une petite caisse tout ce qu’elle possédait en diamants, rubis et perles ». The scene must have taken place at the beginning of 1791. The royal family was already planning its escape from Paris. The Queen secretly sent her jewels to Bruxelles, where her sister, Archduchess Marie Christine, was the governor. The jewellery was then sent to Vienna. The person to whom the jewels were entrusted is the Comte de Mercy Argenteau, who was the imperial ambassador to the court of Versailles. In a letter Marie Antoinette wrote to Count de Mercy on the 11th of January 1791, she explained: « Vous recevrez, monsieur le comte, une cassette à moi vers la fin du mois. Je vous prierais de me la garder, et, si vous quittiez Bruxelles, vous la remettrez à ma sœur pour moi ». In another letter dated from the 3rd of February 1791 she mentioned again the « cassette containing her jewels » that should be arriving in a few weeks. The jewels were worth a fortune, and it must have taken some time to find a trustful messenger to carry them abroad. In June 1791, the escape of the royal family came to a brutal end when King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and their family were arrested in Varennes as they were trying to leave France.
Only one of the France children survived the French Revolution: Marie Thérèse de France, named Madame Royale (1778-1851). She was imprisoned in August 1792 in the « Tour du Temple » with her father, King Louis XVI (1754-1793), her mother, Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), her brother, Louis XVII (1785-1795), and her aunt, Madame Elisabeth (1764-1794). They all died and she was left alone, aged 15 years. In December 1795, she was freed from the prison du Temple and exchanged against French prisoners. She started her first exile in Vienna. One of the first thing Emperor Franz II (1768-1835) did, was to give his young cousin her mother’s famous jewels. In exchange for a pension which Madame Royale received, the Emperor acquired the impressive ruby and diamond set that his cousin had inherited from her mother.
Although she had to live 19 years in exile in Austria, Courlande, Germany and England, Madame Royale, who had also inherited a large sum of money King Louis XVI had sent abroad before the Varennes escape, she managed to keep most of her mother’s diamonds and pearls. In 1814, she came back to France, when her father’s brother became king under the name Louis XVIII (1755-1824). The new king being a widower, Madame Royale who had married in exile her first cousin, the Duc d’Angoulême (1775-1844), became France’s first lady. Madame de Boigne (1781-1866), who wrote very famous political Mémoires, was invited to court frequently and remembers that the duchesse d’Angoulême was always « très parée » during those receptions at court, which means she was always wearing a lot of jewellery.
Madame Royale died in 1851, in Austria. Following the 1830 revolution she had been living in exile. Her will, which is kept in the Habsbourg archives in Vienna, specifies that her jewels should be divided in three equal lots to be given to her nephew, the Comte de Chambord, to his wife, the Comtesse de Chambord, and to her niece, Louise, duchesse de Parme.
Eighty years later, Archduchess Marie Anne of Austria, wife of prince Elie de Bourbon Parme (a grandson of Louise, duchess de Parme) described part of the legacy in the inventory of her jewels:
« Une grande parure de perles dans un écrin de velours bleu ciel. La parure se compose de trois rangs de grosses perles, dont le premier de 47 perles, le deuxième de 53 perles, le troisième de 61 perles, en tour 161 perles.
Un collier de sept rangs de petites perles, en tout 312 perles qui formait autrefois deux bracelets à six rangs de 26 perles.
Une grosse poire (en perle) avec petit nœud de diamants et solitaire qui, autrefois, faisait partie du 3ème rang de grosses perles.
Deux boucles d’oreilles, boutons et poires en perles.
Grande broche en diamants et perles avec 2 grosses, 18 petites perles, 3 poires en perles, 4 grosses gouttes de diamants et une quantité de petits diamants.
Cette parure dans son écrin en velours bleu ciel provient tel quel (sic) de la reine Marie Antoinette et a été légué par Marie Thérèse de France, duchesse d’Angoulême à sa nièce et fille adoptive : Louise Marie Thérèse de France, Mademoiselle, duchesse de Parme. »
On several portraits of the Queen Marie Antoinette by Madame Vigée Lebrun represents her wearing rows of pearls and impressive drop shaped earrings. On one of these portraits, the Queen can be seen adorned with a simple row of large pearls supporting more than twenty-five drop shaped pearls. When she married the dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI, in 1770, the Archduchess Marie Antoinette received 500,000 livres in jewels from her mother Empress Marie Thérèse. Amongst those jewels was a pearl necklace which is mentioned many times at the end of the 19th century as being worn almost every day by the Comtesse de Chambord, one the three beneficiaries of the Duchess d’Angoulême’s estate.
From her grand-father-in-law, King Louis XV, Marie Antoinette received a box containing all the jewels left by the dauphin’s mother, the late Marie Josèphe de Saxe (1731-1767). These jewels were worth 2 million livres. The precious cassette contained diamonds, rubies, a six row pearl necklace, a row of twenty-three large pearls, a pair of bracelets made of six rows of pearls with clasps (one of the clasp is now part of lot *****, used as the clasp of a six row cultured pearl necklace) and another pair of bracelets without clasp.
This fabulous collection of pearls was inherited by the duchesse d’Angoulême, Queen Marie Antoinette’s daughter. Considering the importance of the collection, each of the heirs of Madame Royale - the Comte and Comtesse de Chambord and the Duchesse de Parme - most probably received diamonds and pearls.
Passing from Louise de France, Duchess of Parma, to her son, Duke Robert who first married Princess Marie Pie de Bourbon-Siciles, the pearls were then inherited by their son, Prince Elie de Bourbon-Parme, who married Archduchess Marie Anne of Austria in 1903.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the three row pearl necklace from Queen Marie Antoinette must have been restrung as a long sautoir, following the fashion of the era. Marie Anne, Princess Elie de Bourbon-Parme, can be seen wearing the long sautoir supporting the large pearl drop. Counting the pearls on the sautoir, and considering that some of them are hidden behind her neck, the number is close to one hundred and sixty one, as mentioned in the inventory. This long sautoir, not much in fashion in the second half of the 20th century, must have been then restrung as a three row pearl necklace and a single row. These two necklaces, lots ***** offered in this sale, combined a total of one hundred and fifty nine pearls.
Surviving to the French Revolution, the exile and having been part of the same family since the 18th century, these pearls are a testimony to the grandeur of the 18th century and to what was a Royal jewellery collection throughout the last centuries.
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