Sparklers that cost a Queen her head: Marie Antoinette’s jewels – spirited out of revolutionary France and hidden for centuries – are sold for £33million

  • Marie Antoinette’s jewels were smuggled out of France during the Revolution 
  • They have not been displayed for the last 200 years as they are privately owned
  • They were sold at an action in Geneva last night and fetched total of £33million
  • But the key treasure was Marie Antoinette’s Pearl which fetched £28million 

Two and a half years before her once-beautiful head was paraded around Paris on a spike, Marie Antoinette and her trusted lady-in-waiting Madame Campan spent a long, dark March evening secretly packing up the queen’s jewels.

Every diamond, pearl and ruby was wrapped lovingly in cotton and stowed carefully in a wooden casket. There were signet rings, pearl and diamond earrings, diamond and ruby brooches and many strings of pearls.

Gems sewn to the queen’s over-the-top dresses were painstakingly unpicked. Everything was done in silence and by candlelight in the decaying Tuileries Palace in Paris, where the royal family had been holed up since the mob forced them out of the Palace of Versailles in October 1789.

Marie Antoinette’s jewels – spirited out of revolutionary France and hidden for centuries – are sold for £33million. Pictured: A depiction of Marie Antoinette in a film titled with her name

This ‘slightly Baroque’ natural pearl, 25mm high, is set with a diamond pendant and supported by a diamond bow. Sold for £28 million

In the first stage of the queen’s doomed escape plan, her beloved jewels were to be passed, via the Comte de Mercy-Argenteau (the Austrian ambassador to France), to Marie Antoinette’s nephew, the Emperor of Austria, in Vienna for safekeeping.

Years later they were reclaimed by Marie Antoinette and Louis’s only surviving child, their daughter Marie-Therese, who became known as Madame Royale and later bequeathed some of the jewellery to her niece Louise of France, Duchess of Parma, who in turn left them to her son Robert I, the last ruling Duke of Parma (1848-1907).

Yesterday, more than 200 years after they were last seen in public, ten of Marie Antoinette’s treasures, and part of a 100-piece collection held by the Italian royal house of Bourbon-Parma, were sold in Geneva in one of the most important royal jewellery auctions ever.

Those lovingly packed diamond and pearl drop earrings fetched a price of £277,000.

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An impossibly tiny pinky ring studded with the initials MA in diamonds and containing a lock of her hair sold for £344,000.

A three-strand necklace consisting of 119 gently graduating natural pearls raised £1.77 million and an enormous yellow diamond, suspended from a large diamond-set bow that had been attached to one of the Queen’s favourite belts, fetched £1.63 million.

But the key treasure was Marie Antoinette’s Pearl, a natural pearl the size of a quail’s egg, suspended from a diamond-set bow and topped with an oval-cut diamond which sold for £28 million.

Of course it did.

Because Marie Antoinette was a queen so profligate that her spending makes today’s Russian oligarchs look positively thrifty.

She was never known for subtlety, whether in her absurdly lavish court, her wigs, her dresses, her lifestyle or, most of all, her beloved jewellery collection, which was the stuff of legend — by far the biggest collection of any French queen and rivalled only by that of Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon.

Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, who betrothed her to the dauphin King Louis XVI to strengthen ties between France and her native Austria.

She was just 14 and he 15 when they married and received two million francs worth of jewellery from her French father-in-law. 

 This brooch was created in the 19th century using diamonds from other royal pieces. Sold for £212,000

A pair of natural pearl and diamond earrings that once belonged to Marie Antoinette fetched £342,137 and a diamond ring decorated with the ill-fated queen’s portrait, fetched £191,352

 Inside this enamel and seed pearl pocket watch is a circular dial with Arabic numerals. The inside of the case is engraved ‘MA’. Sold for £192,000

That was on top of a marriage contract from her mother, Maria Theresa, worth 500,000 francs, the occasional treat of a diamond ring or brooch, and the endless jewels Louis gave her over the years.

When she appeared in Paris, the crowd of 50,000 became so animated that more than 30 people were trampled to death.

For while her husband was a rather unremarkable man, with a low sex drive and a fascination for the workings of locks, she was a megastar, the original celebrity, whose smile held ‘an enchantment’ sufficient to win over ‘the most brutal of her enemies’.

She was also vivacious, immature and filled Versailles with hangers-on who played silly games and, at her encouragement, pursued even sillier fashions.

French queen Marie Antoinette was often depicted wearing pearls and was famed for her love of jewellery

By the end of 1776 she had a dress allowance of 150,000 livres (the price of an average house in a French town was about 200 livres) but racked up bills of nearly 500,000 livres. She gambled, partied and spent a fortune on Petit Trianon, a model village in the palace grounds.

She turned Versailles into a hub for ridiculous fashions — wigs in particular. Packed with powder and decked out with ribbons, feathers, flowers, fruit, vegetables and stuffed birds, they grew bigger and bigger until women travelling from Paris to Versailles had to kneel on the floor of their carriages just to accommodate their hair. The queen’s personal coiffeur, Leonard Autie, designed her own 4ft tall hair-do with a replica of the French warship La Belle Poule complete with four masts, sails and jewelled portholes.

But most of all Marie Antionette loved jewels.

She loved rubies so much that Louis raided the French crown jewels and gave her all the ruby pieces, but she particularly liked pearls and was frequently painted wearing multiple strands.

Meanwhile, outside Versailles the economy lurched, harvests failed, peasants starved and rumours began to swirl not only about her excesses, but also her serial infidelity.

It didn’t help that the royal nuptials were not consummated for seven years until finally, in 1777, Marie Antoinette’s mother sent one of her sons to Versailles to sort it out.

This diamond ring contains a rose diamond monogram ‘MA’ and a lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair. Sold for £344,000

Another item once owned by the Queen was a 300-pearl necklace which sold for 1,756,610. The pearls are natural, not cultured as most are today

(It remains unclear whether King Louis XVI underwent surgery for a painful medical condition that left him impotent, or whether the couple had just been — in the words of the emperor — ‘two complete blunderers’.) Later that year, Marie Antoinette gave birth to the first of their four children.

By then the Queen’s once-bright star was fading. But ultimately it was neither her excesses nor the rumoured orgies that led to her downfall, but her passion for jewels.

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785 was a scandal about a stolen diamond necklace of immense value that historians claim paved the way for her execution. Made of 647 stones weighing nearly 2,800 carats, it was the most expensive in the world, valued at 1.6 million francs (£35 million today).

It had been designed by Louis XV’s court jeweller for the old king’s mistress, Madame du Barry. But the monarch died before it was finished and an impoverished aristocrat called Jeanne de la Motte tried to steal it in an ambitious ruse involving a cardinal acting as a go-between and a prostitute imitating the queen.

A depiction of the execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793, after she was caught trying to escape France with Louis XVI

This single-strand natural pearl necklace fetched £342,137. Her personal jewellery collection was smuggled out of France during the Revolution

The plotters were caught, but the necklace was never recovered (it was quickly broken up and the stones sent to London to be sold). And although Marie Antoinette had absolutely nothing to do with it, the nine-month trial — full of lies, scandal and fantasy — damaged her reputation irreparably, trumping the tales swirling from her court.

She faced public humiliation. When she visited Paris soon after giving birth to her fourth child, the crowd greeted her in ‘perfect cold silence’.

She was nicknamed ‘Madame Deficit’. Rumours swirled about her drinking, her lesbian tendencies and her sexual voracity — three quarters of the officers of the Gardes Francaises were said to ‘have penetrated the queen’.

Even Napoleon later said: ‘The queen’s death must be dated from the Diamond Necklace trial.’

While only a fraction of her jewels were saved after the Revolution, this priceless cache, so carefully packed that night in 1791, finally came safely to her last surviving child, Marie-Therese, when the latter arrived in Vienna in 1796 after three years in solitary confinement. (The jewels had been kept safe by her cousin, the Austrian emperor.)

The Queen and King Louis XVI were less fortunate.

Another image of the £28million stunning diamond pendant with a ‘pearl of exceptional size’ that was once owned by Marie Antoinette

Model wearing Jewels owned by Marie Antoinette including The ‘Queen Marie Antoinette’s Pearl’, Pair of natural Pearl and Diamond pendant earrings, late 18th Century, Important natural Pearl and Diamond necklace, Monogrammed ring containing a lock of the Queen’s hair and Diamond Brooch, second half of the 18th Century Bourbon Parma Family jewellery

After the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, came bread riots and, on October 5, the stand-off between the royal family and the starving crowds in the courtyard of Versailles, where legend (incorrectly) has it that she said ‘Qu’ils mangent du brioche’ — ‘Let them eat cake’.

They were captured when they tried to flee Paris in June 1791, stopped just 30 miles from their stronghold and hauled back to the capital.

Nine months after the execution of her husband, Marie Antoinette was tried and found guilty on trumped-up charges that included high treason, sexual promiscuity and even incestuous relations with her son, Louis-Charles. At exactly 12.15pm on Wednesday, October 16, 1793, her head was cut off and exhibited to the jubilant public who had welcomed her with such hysteria just over 20 years earlier.

The last time jewellery linked to Marie-Antoinette came up for sale, buyers were squeamish. In 2007, the ruby and diamond Sutherland necklace, created by the 18th-century Countess of Sutherland and featuring diamonds given to her by Marie Antoinette shortly before the monarch’s execution, failed to find a buyer when more than one potential client seemed concerned that it had belonged to someone who was beheaded. The blood-red rubies didn’t help, either.

Yesterday, no one was put off and a bidding frenzy took place to secure jewels that span centuries of European history, from the fall of the last king of France to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the execution of one of the most profligate, misguided, misquoted and possibly misunderstood queens ever.    

The infamous necklace created by the Paris jewellers Charles Bohemer and Paul Bassenge, which dragged Marie Antoinette into the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’

How were Marie Antoinette’s jewels smuggled out of France? 

The impressive ensemble of jewels to be offered this autumn has an extraordinary story. In March 1791, King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their children began to prepare their escape from France. 

According to accounts written by Marie Antoinette’s lady in waiting, Madame Campan, the queen spent an entire evening in the Tuileries Palace wrapping all of her diamonds, rubies and pearls in cotton and placing them in a wooden chest. 

In the following days, the jewels were sent to Brussels, which was under the rule of the queen’s sister, Archduchess Marie-Christine and which was home to Count Mercy Argentau. 

The count, the former Austrian Ambassador to Paris, was one of the only men who had retained the queen’s trust. 

It was he who took delivery of the jewels and sent them on to Vienna, into the safe keeping of the Austrian Emperor, Marie Antoinette’s nephew.

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