Marie Antoinette and Her Jewels

If you have a passing knowledge of the French Revolution, you must be familiar with the Diamond Necklace Affair – it was the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to extravagant royal spending at a time when the nation was starving and fighting expensive wars.  Since then, Marie Antoinette, doomed French Queen, and her jewels have been the focus of much debate, speculation, and study.  So when a lot of jewelry, purported to be her, hit Sotheby’s auction block this month, it drew the attention of the media and the public.

 
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Legacy

The Diamond Necklace Affair, while closely tied to Marie Antoinette unfolded without her knowledge or involvement until the end.  Designed and created for the mistress of the previous king, the necklace in question was a massive diamond piece that was valued at 1.6 million livres.  The jeweler to made the piece knew that his client pool for such a piece was extremely limited, and tried to sell it to the Queen on several occasions.  Understanding the deteriorating political climate, however, she declined.  Enter the Comtesse de La Motte, who convinced the Cardinal de Rohan to but the necklace and gift it to the Queen to win her favour.  The Cardinal, proving God can’t protect the truly dunderheaded amongst us, bought the piece, but then failed to raise the first installment payment.  The jeweler, obviously worried that he wouldn’t be paid for this massive asset, went straight to the Queen looking for his money.  The Queen’s response? “Hun?”  Turns out, La Motte played a fast one, and as soon as she got her hands on the necklace she did a runner for London, where the piece was broken up and sold for part.  But the damage was done – the Queen was linked to another scandal that was seemingly caused by her reckless spending, and those agitating for revolution took advantage.

On the Sly

Between the Diamond Necklace Affair (1785) and the fall of the monarchy (1791), there were several important events that made sure the royal could read the writing on the wall.  Knowing trouble was coming, Marie Antoinette and the King started making plans to leave France and seek asylum elsewhere in Europe should the situation worsen to the point where the monarchy itself was at risk/their lives were threatened.  To prepare for that, the Queen packed up a selection of her jewels in a wooden crate and entrusted them to an Austrian diplomat who smuggled them to Vienna.  A few months later, the royal family were arrested after they were caught trying to flee the country, and their story ends with imprisonment, a trial, and finally beheading in 1793.  They were survived by two of their children; the Dauphin (or, king, technically after his father’s death) died shortly after his parents while in custody, but his sister survived and, after three years worth of solitary confinement, was released and sent to Vienna where she was reunited with her mother’s jewels. 

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Up for Grabs

So, do you have a few million you’re looking to spend?  Well, if you were in the market, you could have picked yourself up some stunning pieces from Sotheby’s, which was auctioning off several lots under the title of “Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family” in Geneva this month.  Included were pendants, necklaces, earrings, brooches, rings and a tiara.  The historical cache obviously drove up the prices – the fleur de lys tiara was expected to go for between $460,000 and $723,000 Canadian dollars, and the final price was just shy of $1.3 million.  Yikes!  But, I mean, look at it.  Of course.  But it wasn’t the only piece to go way over expected prices – the mere framework for a brooch (without any stones) was expected to sell for $1,000 - $1,600, instead, it was sold for $52,600.  What?!?  The most expensive piece was expected to be a natural pearl and diamond pendant; it was pre-valued at $1.3 million to $2.6 million, and the final sale price was $48 million.  Can I suggest that the people who bid and won some of these pieces re-examine their priorities and find some charitable organizations to help instead?

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There’s no denying that the pre-Revolution French court was an expensive place to live.  No historian would say that the excessive spending by the royals and aristocrats didn’t lead directly to the Revolution.  But, looking at the amounts that were spent to be able to claim some of Marie Antoinette’s former pieces, it seems like some people didn’t learn the lesson.  These are beautiful pieces, no doubt, but the 100 pieces sold for a grand total of $71,045,667.98.  Surly there was a better use for that much money that people could have found?

Have a great week, everyone!

Elise

Sources

Affair of the Diamond Necklace

Marie Antoinette's prized jewels up for auction

Marie-Antoinette’s Jewels Come to Auction

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