Smuggled Away During the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette’s $36 Million Pearl Pendant Shatters Auction Records

After her execution, the Queen of France's daughter inherited her jewels, which have been in private royal ownership for more than 200 years.

A model shows a stunning diamond pendant, supporting a natural pearl of exceptional size that belonged to Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France. Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

When Marie Antoinette realized that her life was in peril during the French Revolution, the much-maligned Queen of France sent her most precious items to family members abroad. Among the jewels that the queen smuggled away was a pendant with a large natural pearl in the shape of a tear drop complemented by diamonds. Safely wrapped, it moved between relatives from Brussels and then to the Austrian empire, remaining in the private possession of extended relatives for centuries. Some 200 years later, the incredible piece of jewelry with a dramatic backstory has hit the auction block, shattered its estimate, and set a world record.

The long-dead queen, who seems to be an eternal celebrity, is once again in the spotlight this week. On Wednesday (November 14) at Sotheby’s Geneva, the drop-shaped pearl and diamond piece from the queen’s personal collection sold to an undisclosed buyer for $36 million, eclipsing its pre-sale high estimate of $1.8 million by leaps and bounds. It was among 100 lots on offer from the Bourbon-Parma royal family, whose sale achieved a total of $53.1 million, seven times than the pre-sale estimate. Many of the pieces had not been seen by the public for two centuries.

The Wednesday sale marked another record, too. It takes the top spot for any sale of royal jewels. Every lot found a buyer and bidders were calling in to the Swiss city from 43 countries, according to the auction house. David Bennett, Sotheby’s jewelry chairman in Europe, says the extraordinary result established “a new benchmark” in royal and noble jewels. Indeed, the pendant sale more than doubled the previous record holder, Elizabeth Taylor’s 50.6-carat La Peregrina, which sold at Christie’s in 2011 for $11.8 million. The pearl that dangled from the actress’s neck had once been owned by none other than Queen Mary I of England.

Queen Marie Antoinette’s Pearl from the Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

But the Austrian-born Queen of France and her resplendent jewels are arguably more famous, and notoriously so. Her love of extravagance came home to roost when the revolutionaries came to power. As such, it was a sale for collectors and historians alike.

“This is about far more than the gems themselves: Marie Antoinette’s jewelry is inextricably linked to the cause of the French Revolution,” Eddie LeVian, the chief executive of jewelers Le Vian, told the Guardian ahead of the sale. Diamonds turned out to be the queen’s undoing: in the so-called “Affair of the Diamond Necklace,” con artists attempted to sell a precious, exorbitantly-priced diamond necklace, claiming to be working under Marie Antoinette. The fraudulent case nevertheless caused a scandal and helped discredit the queen on the eve of the French Revolution.

Sotheby’s Geneva auction broke records on Wednesday evening (November 15). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Ten of the lots could be directly traced to the 18th-century monarch. Marie Antoinette’s jewel collection also included a set of pearl and diamond earrings and a diamond brooch, as well as a diamond-set ring monogrammed with her initials that also bears a lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair; the ring sold for 50 times its pre-sale estimate ($8,000-10,000) for $443,786.

After Marie Antoinette was beheaded in 1793, her daughter, Marie-Thérèse de France, was released and sent to Austria. She was given her mother’s jewelry, which was eventually handed down to the Bourbon-Parma royal family.

“Tonight we saw the Marie Antoinette factor work its magic,” said Daniel Mascetti, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, in a press statement. “No other queen is more famous for her love of jewels, and her personal treasures, pearls and diamonds that survived intact the tumults of history, captivated the interest of collectors around the world.”

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