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Treasures at Sotheby’s London

A group of Romanov portrait diamonds among exquisite masterpieces on offer at Treasures 2018, Sotheby's London.

Treasures 2018, the prestigious annual Decorative Arts sale held during the lively July Old Masters week in London presents impressive masterpieces of museum-quality, exquisite craftsmanship and outstanding Royal, Noble and Aristocratic provenance.

 

This carefully curated sale presents a rich and enchanting exhibition. From Admiral Horatio Nelson’s pocket watch to Queen Marie Antoinette’s first vase most probably acquired for Le Petit Trianon, from works of art belonging to Napoleone Bonaparte to Antonio Canova’s masterpiece, Bust of Peace – hidden for 200 years…

Treasures, as the name of this important sale at Sotheby’s, among which is a group of Romanov portrait diamonds.

 

 

From an introductory essay by Diana Scarisbrick on the Treasures’ sale catalogue describing these lots.

 

The sale of this collection of miniatures covered by portrait diamonds is an unusual event, for each one is a great rarity in itself.

Moreover, they comprise a series evoking outstanding personalities in Russian history, Alexander I, his brother Nicholas I, their mother the Empress Maria Feodorovna, the Empress Maria Alexandrovna and her son, the Grand Duke Vladimir.

Intensely personal, each would have been given by the sitter to a close member of the Imperial family, or to a beloved individual, signifying the bond between them, and always displayed with the pride of possession.

The group includes one from a member of a European Royal family descended from Emperor Nicholas I and seven (in fi ve lots) from a private collection assembled over many years by an American enthusiast.

This type of royal jewellery in which the miniature was not only surrounded by diamonds but also covered with a diamond became a Russian speciality which continued to be popular with the Imperial family right up to the Revolution of 1917.

Flat on both sides, the top surface faceted at the edges, known as Lask or portrait diamonds, the stones come from the cleavage of irregularly shaped octahedrons.

The portrait is lit up by the reflections from the facets of the diamond, the highly polished limpid surface lets the portrait shine through with more éclat than crystal and draws the eye towards it. Only the very clearest stones can obtain this magical effect.

 

Portrait diamonds were known to European royalty.

 

Portrait diamonds were not exclusive to the Russian monarchs.

One of the first to recognize the great qualities of diamond covers to enhance miniatures was the Dowager Queen of France, Maria de Medici, widow of King Henry IV. She used to wear a gold ring enclosing the miniatures of her younger son, Louis XIII and his wife, Anna of Austria, beneath a large diamond.

From her through kings, queens and princesses we arrive at Empress Catherine II, in Russia. She adopted the portrait diamond and gave it its characteristic Russian connotation – an important, sometimes massif jewel, highlighting rank and authority, made to impress.

Since then, portrait diamonds became inextricably linked to the rulers of the Russian Empire.

 

Empress Maria Feodorovna.

An imperial portrait diamond demi-parure, possibily Duval, St Petersburg, circa 1790 and earlier.

 

Empress Maria Feodorvna demi-parure
Empress Maria Feodorovna.
An imperial portrait diamond demi-parure, possibly Duval, St Petersburg, circa 1790 and earlier.

 

The demi-parure presents a pendant centred with a miniature portrait of Grand Duchess, later Empress, Maria Feodorovna, below a table diamond. The bezel and the leaf spray frame are set with rose-cut diamonds, a ribbon tie surmounting the pendant.

 

Empress Maria Feodorovna pendant portrait diamond.

 

Together with the pendant, there are two earrings decorated with the miniature painting of a gentleman, possibly her sons, Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich (1777-1825), later Emperor Alexander, and Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich (1779-1831), each below a table diamond within the diamond-set leaf and ribbon frames, with gold hook wires, mounted in silver with gold backs chased with swirling reeds.

 

 

Maria Fedorovna had a penchant for sentimental jewellery. It is supposed that the jewels comprised in this lot (estimated US$ 338,000-474,000) were commissioned to be gifted to a close family member, either her mother-in-law, Catherine II, or her own mother, Duchess Friederike of Württemberg.

 

 

Emperor Alexander I

An imperial portrait diamond pendant, probably Duval, St Petersburg, circa 1809, elements of the jewel probably earlier.

 

Imperial portrait of Emperor Alexander I
An imperial portrait diamond pendant, probably Duval, St Petersburg, circa 1809, elements of the jewel probably earlier.

 

This portrait diamond shows an earlier miniature portrait of Emperor Alexander I wearing the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, with the sash and breast star of the Order of St Andrew and the badge of the Order of St George.

The portrait is placed below a faceted table diamond, the bezel set with rose-cut diamonds, its border set with graduated circular-cut diamonds. The portrait is framed by a spiralling ribbon tied at the surmount and set with rose-cut diamonds.

According to jewellery historian and curator Lilia Kuznetsova, this lot (estimated US$ 680,000-950,000) was a gift of the Emperor to his sister, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna, on the occasion of her wedding in 1809.

 

 

Emperor Nicholas I

An imperial portrait diamond ring, St Petersburg, circa 1830.

 

Imperial portrait diamond ring of Emperor Nicholas I
An imperial portrait diamond ring, St Petersburg, circa 1830.

 

The ring has a miniature portrait, attributed to Ivan Windberg, of Emperor Nicholas I, covered by a table diamond. The border and shoulders are set with circular-cut diamonds and it has the city mark of St Petersburg.

This ring presents a more intimate portrait of the Emperor, quite different from his official ones. This is why it is believed that this ring follows the ‘lover’s eye’ miniature style of the late 18th and early 19th century, which gave a deeper look into the sitter’s soul.

This is a reason to believe that the recipient of this ring was someone who used to be very intimate to the Emperor, and it is supposed that the ring was given to Varvara Nelidova, the Emperor’s mistress. This affair lasted until 1855, the year of the Emperor’s death, with an illegitimate son, Alexei Pashkine, born in 1831.

 

 

Empress Maria Alexandrovna

An imperial portrait diamond pendant, Phillips Brothers & Son, London, 1880.

 

Empress Maria Alexandrovna portrait diamond pendant
An imperial portrait diamond pendant, Phillips Brothers & Son, London, 1880

 

The miniature portrait in this portrait diamond pendant is attributed to Alexander Wegner and depicts Empress Maria Alexandrovna. Also, in this case, the portrait appears under a table diamond, within a border of circular-cut diamonds. Its frame is of openwork yellow gold Gothic tracery with beads partly enamelled in opaque black with white highlights and set with four further diamonds.

 

Empress Maria Alexandrovna diamond portrait pendant
Empress Maria Alexandrovna diamond portrait pendant – front

 

The reverse of the pendant bears this inscription: Marie/ In remembrance/ of her dead mother/ from her affectionate/ husband, Alfred./ 5/17 October 1880″. The pendant also has the Ps and Prince of Wales feathers maker’s mark.

 

Empress Maria Alexandrovna diamond portrait pendant
Empress Maria Alexandrovna diamond portrait pendant – back

 

This portrait diamond pendant (estimated US$ 136,000-203,000) was, in fact, given by Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria and later Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, (1844-1900) to his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia (1853-1920), daughter of the Empress, on her twenty-seventh birthday, 17 October 1880.

This gift was to commemorate Maria’s mother, who died at the Winter Palace on 3 June 1880 after a long illness.

 

 

Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich

An imperial portrait diamond pendant, probably Fabergé, St Petersburg, circa 1899.

 

Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich portrait diamond pendant
An imperial portrait diamond pendant, probably Fabergé, St Petersburg, circa 1899.

 

In this miniature portrait, the Grand Duke (1847-1909) is wearing the uniform of the Life Guards Dragoon Regiment and the sash of the Order of St Andrew. The portrait is positioned below a table diamond within a border of rose-cut diamonds. The pierced frame has diamond-set entwining bands, suspending from an Imperial crown.

This jewel (estimated US$ 95,000-122,000) was most probably a gift from the Grand Duke to his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1854-1920) on the occasion of their silver wedding anniversary in 1899.

The attribution of this piece to Fabergé is supported by the fact the Grand Duke himself was the patron of the firm, and that he commissioned The Hen Egg, the first Imperial Fabergé Easter egg purchased by Alexandra III in 1885. More than this, Fabergé was skilful in the use of portrait diamonds, sometimes incorporated in the decoration of the Imperial eggs and, for what table diamonds are concerned, these cover cyphers or dates on more Imperial eggs. CC

 

All research material courtesy of Sotheby’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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