Marie-Antoinette's love of jewelry created scandal and public uprising. Ultimately, it caused the fall of France's royal court and her death

By Peter Mikelbank
July 27, 2018 05:24 PM
Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

Marie-Antoinette‘s love of jewelry created scandal and public uprising. Ultimately, it caused the fall of France’s royal court and her death.

Two hundred years later, one surviving piece — unseen for 200 years — is up for auction. Estimated value: $1,000,000 to $2,000,000.

The exceptional diamond and pearl brooch is being offered by Sotheby’s in Geneva on Wednesday as part of a collection of pieces from the royal house of Bourbon-Parma.

History recognizes Marie-Antoinette’s indulgences, excesses and involvement in the “affair of the diamond necklace,” a piece so elaborate and rare that its expense, enmeshed in a failed cover-up, roiled a tabloid-like mix of outrage and scandal. When the rumors became public trials, they turned the French against their once-popular, Austrian-born queen and sealed her eventual fate. (She was beheaded on October 16, 1793.)

No less an authority on French history than Napoleon himself believed the necklace to be at the core of the public backlash. “The Queen’s death,” he mused while in exile on Elba, “must be dated from that diamond necklace trial.”

Diamond and Pearl Brooch

The diamond bow brooch with pearl droplet that is now being auctioned has an intriguing tale of its own. Legend suggests that when King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their children attempted to flee France in 1791, the droplet pearl and other priceless pieces, individually wrapped in cotton, were sent by different routes to Brussels. While the royals were captured in flight and returned to Paris, the wooden chest containing the jewels arrived safely in Belgium. The jewels then journeyed to Vienna, entrusted to Marie Antoinette’s cousin, Austrian Emperor Francis II.

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Pink Diamond Ring
Pearl and Diamond Necklace

Caught as the Revolution darkened into the Reign of Terror, the royal family were eventually imprisoned. The king and queen were placed on trial separately and both executed.

However, their oldest child, the teenage Marie-Thérese, would become the only member of the royal family to survive. Held in solitary confinement, “Madame Royale” was finally released on the eve of her 17th birthday. Arriving in Vienna in Jan. 1796, she reclaimed her mother’s jewels, which have since passed down in the Bourbon-Parma line.

Diamond Brooch

Along with the pearl brooch, the upcoming sale includes two additional pieces that reflect the splendor of Versailles, including a 331-pearl diamond clasped necklace (estimated value: $200,000 to $300,000) and a pair of diamond-capped pearl earrings (estimated at $30,000 to $50,000).

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“It is a privilege to have been entrusted with this collection, certainly one of the most important royal collections ever to come to auction,” Sotheby’s Deputy Chairman for Jewelry in Europe, Daniela Mascetta, tells PEOPLE. “These are never-before-seen treasures from one of the most illustrious royal families in Europe. Each aspect of the research is exciting, from the historical provenance — including, of course, Marie-Antoinette — to the rarity and craftsmanship of the pieces, which are exquisite in their own right.”

The November auction is the second involving Marie-Antoinette’s jewels to come under Sotheby’s hammer this year. In May, the auction house sold the celebrated 6.16 carat heart-shaped Farnese Blue diamond, which had once belonged to the French queen, for $6.7 million.