Together estimated at £300,000-500,000
Sotheby’s is set to offer two tiaras that are, by tradition, thought to have once belonged to Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), wife of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Empress of France. These highly rare tiaras are exquisite examples of the very finest early 19th-century French craftsmanship. Made in Paris circa 1808, they embody the fascination for neo-classical design that reached its zenith under Bonaparte’s regime.
The style reflects the fact that after the French Revolution, Napoléon had sought to legitimise his new government by resurrecting historical and cultural references to ancient Rome, even choosing to stud his coronation crown with a large number of ancient portrait cameos. Joséphine understood the value of her public image, using her clothes and jewels to evoke the ideals of the ancient world, and linking it with the current Empire to enhance the prestige of her husband's regime.
The two tiaras – each part of a parure (or a set of matching jewellery designed to be worn together) – are set with gemstones engraved with classical heads, several of which are possibly ancient, and were believed to endow the wearer with their various depicted qualities such as heroism, faithfulness and love.
Coming to auction from a UK private collection where they have remained for at least 150 years, both parures are still contained in their original Parisian leather boxes. They will be offered with estimates of £200,000-300,000 and £100,000-200,000 respectively in Sotheby’s London Treasures sale on 7 December 2021.
The parures will be exhibited from 2-9 November at Mandarin Oriental, Geneva, alongside highlights from Sotheby’s sales of Magnificent Jewels.
A similar parure is held in the collection of the Swedish Royal family, inherited through Joséphine’s son, Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg. His daughter, Joséphine of Leuchtenberg, brought numerous jewels into the Swedish Royal family when she married the future King Oscar I in 1823.
“These majestic jewels mounted with cameos and intaglios certainly evoke the style of the grand Empress Joséphine - her rank as wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, her impeccable taste and her interest in the classical world. Empress Joséphine was much more than just a collector of antiquities. By being the first to incorporate these cameos and intaglios into her dress, wearing them side by side with pearls and diamonds, she created an entire new fashion that swept Paris and the world, based on neo-classical forms. The jewels offered here demonstrate the finest delicate work by the finest French workshops, and, today, there are hardly any comparable pieces in the world. When fashions changed, jewellery was broken up and re-modelled, making their survival a truly exceptional one.“ - Kristian Spofforth, Head of Sotheby’s Jewels department in London
Renowned for their lavish entertainment and appetite for grandeur and luxury, Napoléon and Joséphine’s patronage of the arts was intrinsic to the establishment of design during the regime and provided a much needed impetus to the luxury industries and jewellery workshops following the French Revolution and its aftermath. In just six years, Joséphine spent an impressive sum of over 25 million francs on jewellery and clothes, far exceeding her designated allowance.
Since the noble art of gem engraving had been patronised by the rulers of the ancient world, Napoleon too associated this technique with his own regime. The Imperial couple had images of themselves recreated in numerous cameos with quintessential Roman motifs of laurel leaf, crown and cloak. Napoléon’s interest culminated in founding a school in Paris to instruct on their engraving and, from 1805, extending the Prix de Rome (hitherto reserved for painters, sculptors and architects) to engravers too.
Joséphine herself possessed an extensive and well curated collection of antiquities. Advised by Dominique-Vivant Denon, Director of the Musée Napoleon, she learnt to distinguish between the various hardstones used, to appreciate the virtuoso engraving techniques, and to recognise the gods and heroes of mythology, successive Roman Emperors and Empresses, and the significance of the scenes depicted.
She would select cameos from her collection to be mounted into jewellery and into other items in her wardrobe, such as her green velvet riding jacket that was reportedly secured with a gold belt decorated with them. This type of jewellery struck just the right note in Paris during the Consulate and the Empire when there was a transition of collective taste towards classical simplicity, rejecting the previous century’s penchant for elaborate embellishment. The ideal of female beauty was to model oneself on the ancient Greek sculptures in all their simple purity, abstaining from any sort of fashion which might pose as a distraction.
According to Joséphine’s lady in waiting, Mademoiselle Avrillion, who was in charge of her jewellery, her greatest pleasure when at her home, Château de Malmaison, was to sit at a table with her ladies beside a fire, and show them the cameos she was wearing that day. The inventories of Joséphine’s jewels drawn up in 1804 and after her death in 1814 list numerous examples of her cameo and intaglio jewellery, though unfortunately provide few precise details of the contents.
The sale includes a selection of further pieces which are thought to have once belonged to Joséphine de Beauharnais.
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