GENEVA, Switzerland — Marie Antoinette's dazzling diamonds and pearls, unseen in public for two centuries, will go on sale in Geneva on Wednesday in what is being billed as one of the most important royal jewelry auctions in history.
The treasures were secretly whisked out of Paris in 1791 as King Louis XVI, his queen and their children prepared to escape during the French Revolution.
They are part of a major collection, held by the Italian royal House of Bourbon-Parma, that is being sold by Sotheby's auction house.
Out of the more than 100 lots, 10 pieces belonged to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before the revolution.
She was guillotined in Paris in October 1793 at the age of 37.
"It is the sale of the 21st century. Because how do you top Marie Antoinette?" Andres White Correal, Sotheby's senior director of jewelry, told AFP last month.
The highlight is Marie Antoinette's Pearl, a natural pearl and diamond pendant valued at $1-2 million (€870,000-€1.75 million).
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 pearl and diamond pendant earrings.
A monogrammed ring containing a lock of her hair is valued at $8,000-10,000.
A fine natural pearl and diamond necklace is meanwhile priced at $40,000-70,000, while a double ribbon bow diamond brooch is estimated at $50,000-80,000.
'Imbued with history'
"It is one of the most important royal jewelry 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 jewelry Europe.
The jewels followed a winding path highlighting European power dynamics in the 18th and 19th centuries.
According to accounts written by the queen's lady in waiting, Madame Campan, Marie Antoinette spent an entire evening in the Tuileries Palace wrapping all her diamonds, rubies and pearls in cotton and enclosing them in a wooden chest.
They were sent to Brussels, governed by her sister Archduchess Marie-Christine, before being sent on to the French queen's native Austria, and to the safe-keeping of her nephew, the emperor.
In 1792, the royal family was imprisoned in Paris. The king and queen were executed the next year, and their 10-year-old son, Louis XVII died in captivity.
Only their daughter, Marie Therese of France, survived. She was sent to Austria in 1796, where she was given her mother's jewels.
She had no children herself, but passed on the jewels to her niece and adopted daughter, Louise of France, Duchess of Parma, who in turn left them to her son, Robert I (1848-1907), the last ruling Duke of Parma.
They have been privately owned by relatives ever since.
Wednesday's Bourbon-Parma sale also contains jewelry belonging to Charles X, including a diamond tiara; jewels from empress Marie Therese of Austria—Marie Antoinette's mother—and Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, who died in 1916.
The fleur de lys 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. — AFP