Marie Antoinette's jewels go on show before auction

Marie Antoinette's dazzling diamonds and pearls, unseen in public for two centuries, went on show in London on Friday before going on sale next month in one of the most important royal jewellery auctions in history.

Photo: AFP

The treasures were secretly whisked out of Paris in 1791 in the aftermath of the French Revolution and have been privately owned by relatives ever since.

The collection, held by the Italian royal House of Bourbon-Parma, is being sold by Sotheby's auction house in Geneva on November 14.

On show at their London headquarters, the lots include 10 pieces which belonged to Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before the French Revolution. She was guillotined in Paris aged 37 in October 1793.

"The romance, magic and universality of her name is because she represents that sophistication of l'ancien regime. She is it," Andres White Correal, Sotheby's senior director of jewellery, told AFP.

"It is the sale of the 21st century. Because how do you top Marie Antoinette? Also because it's so scarce. There isn't much left."

The highlight is Queen Marie Antoinette's Pearl, a natural pearl and diamond pendant valued at $1-2 million (870,000-1.75 million euros).

A natural pearl and diamond necklace composed of three rows of more than 100 slightly graduated pearls is expected to fetch $200,000-300,000, as are a pair of natural pearl and diamond pendant earrings.

A monogrammed ring containing a lock of her hair is valued at $8,000-10,000.

"The ring is a small diamond ring with a lock of her hair inside, with the monogram MA set with rose diamonds," Sotheby's jewellery specialist Benoit Repellin told AFP.

"The value of the diamonds themselves is very low but there is an emotional value and a historic value behind it."

Spirited out of France

A fine natural pearl and diamond necklace is priced at $40,000-70,000, while a double ribbon bow diamond brooch is estimated at $50,000-80,000.

When king Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette and their children tried to flee the French Revolution in March 1791, the royal jewels were smuggled out of the country into the trust of a confidant in Brussels.

They were then sent on to relatives in Austria and passed down through the generations.

"It is one of the most important royal jewellery collections ever to appear on the market and each and every jewel is absolutely imbued with history," said Daniela Mascetti, deputy chair of Sotheby's jewellery Europe.

"This extraordinary group of jewels offers a captivating insight into the lives of its owners going back hundreds of years."

White Correal compared Marie Antoinette to Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra and Britain's Diana, princess of Wales.

He said there were queens with greater political and historical stature but Marie Antoinette "had the allure".

The Bourbon-Parma sale also contains jewellery belonging to Charles X, the last monarch styled king of France, including a diamond tiara; jewels from empress Marie Therese of Austria -- Marie Antoinette's mother -- and from Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, who died in 1916.

The fleur de lys design tiara, made in 1912, contains diamonds from the collection of Charles X, Marie Antoinette's brother-in-law, who died in 1836. It is estimated at $350,000-550,000.

The collection has been exhibited in Hong Kong, Dubai and New York and will go on to Singapore, Taipei and back to Geneva where they will go under the hammer.

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