In March 1791, Marie Antoinette — then France’s capricious and controversial monarch — spent an evening packing up her jewels with her lady-in-waiting. With the French Revolution underway, the queen sent a number of precious gems off to Brussels, where she and the king planned to flee.
“The jewels made it, but unfortunately, she did not,” Daniela Mascetti, chairman of jewelry at Sotheby’s Europe tells The Post. Three months later, the royal family was captured on their way out of France and imprisoned. Only one of them — the teenage princess, Marie-Thérèse — would ever leave the country again.
Yet astonishingly, many of the glittering gems that Marie Antoinette sent away have survived to this day intact. Now, nine pieces from the ill-fated queen’s personal collection are part of a vast historic auction with Sotheby’s, called “Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family.” Bidding will take place in Geneva, on Nov. 14. Before that, the assortment of more than 100 baubles is traveling the globe for public viewing, including a stint this week at Sotheby’s New York.
The exhibit will run through Tuesday, Oct. 16: an auspicious day that marks the 225th anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s beheading in 1793. Her son died in prison two years later, but her daughter was eventually released. A somber, 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse left Paris for Vienna, where she met with her cousin, Emperor Francis II.
He gave her a gift to celebrate her arrival: a chest full of her dearly departed mother’s pristine diamonds and pearls.
It is “extraordinary” that these gems survived the ensuing centuries, Mascetti says. They did because Marie Antoinette’s sister, an archduchess in Brussels, had them sent to Vienna in anticipation of Marie-Thérèse’s arrival. More, the dutiful daughter didn’t dare have them reset.
“Diamonds were so much rarer than they are now, and only ruling families could afford them,” Mascetti says. “And even then, they could not have new jewels unless they dismantled the old ones.”
Despite the odds, the queen’s prizes stayed in the family after Marie-Thérèse died and willed them to her niece, Louise de Bourbon. (Although Marie-Thérèse married, she had no children.) Today, an item such as a natural teardrop pearl pendant suspended from a delicate diamond-studded bow looks exactly the same as it did when Marie Antoinette wore it.
“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion” to admire these jewels, Mascetti says.
“Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family” is on view until Tuesday, Oct. 16. Admission is free. Sotheby’s, 1334 York Ave.; Sothebys.com