Sale of the French Crown Jewels


The sale in 1887 of the French Crown jewels scattered the collection around the world. In 1530, when Eleanor of Austria married Frances I, the king consolodated the empires jewels into a single collection, with subsequent kings adding to the treasure over the years.

When King Louis Philippe l abdicated the throne after eighteen years of reign, the new parliamentary republic didn’t want to chance any more monarchist uprisings and in 1886 the president of the parlament signed a law to sell the crown jewels. A correspondent for the New York times wrote ” It is the final liquidation of royality, a sort of sale after decease, when the auctioneer’s mallet will ring on the tables of the Hotel Drouot like the hammer of the undertaker on a coffin lid.” The jewels were displayed at the Musee de Louvre for the French who were so dismayed at the loss of their royal artistic heritage.  Private viewings were allowed for potential buyers, many of whom happened to be wives of American Senators, American Industrialists and buyers for some of the fine jewelry houses including Boucheron, Vever, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany and Bapst (the jeweler for the French court for nine generations.)

The inventory of the sale included some of the most famous diamonds.  Diamonds that were not only incredibly rare but also came with stories that were just as incredible.  The Mazarin Diamond collection of eighteen large diamonds was originally part of England’s Crown jewels but had disappeared during the revolution.  The  few retrieved, including the famed “Mirror of Portugal”, were donated to the French Crown Jewels.  The valuable 410 ct. Regent diamond, which did not go up for sale and stayed at the Louvre, was originally found by an Indian slave who tried to buy his freedom with it.  The diamond eventually was purchased by the duc d’Orleans in 1717 only to have it disappear then found in an attic in Paris the following year.

The diamond and turquoise diadem worn by Empress Eugenie was on display on a purple velvet cushion in the window of Macy’s Department store in New York  just a few weeks after Mr. Macy purchased it after the Louvre viewing.

Caroline Astor purchased the famous bowknot and tassel brooch created for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon 111, the last emperor of France. The diamond bow with tassels and five pampilles of diamonds in descending sizes were originally the center of her most famous diamond belt.  Incredibly this jewel, still with the original box has been recently returned to France and is on view today at the Louvre.

Mr. Thomas Banks, the buyer for Tiffany’s just happened to be in Paris during this momentous sale.  The timing of his tour of Europe for buying jewels gave great fortune for Tiffany both in their acquisition of some of the world’s finest jewelry produced and for their reputation for offering for sale rare gems and jewelry. Tiffany reported to the New York Times that “Our house is the largest buyer at the sale of the French Crown Jewels.”  Tiffany purchased numerous loose diamonds, many of them  rose, yellow and cognac colors, including the  Mirror of Portugal diamond.  The famous four strand diamond collar and a suite of diamond brooches, rows of pearls, pearls that are natural and rare that have been worn by royalty for centuries.

Tiffany’s was the largest buyer at the sale as a single American firm.  Some of the diamonds and pearls were taken to New York for sale and other pieces were sold at the Tiffany & Co. in Paris.  The store, located originally on the rue de Richelieu and then moved in 1910 to the rue de l’Opera the store was a “movable feast of luxury.”

My source for information is the “Artistic Luxury” catalog published by The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Janet Deleuse, All Rights Reserved

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