Two of Empress Joséphine Bonaparte’s tiaras sell for $763,000
Two tiaras believed to have been owned by Joséphine Bonaparte, the first wife of French Emperor Napoleon, went up for auction Tuesday after a century and a half in private hands.Combined, they sold for £576,000 ($763,000) on December 7 at Sotheby’s in London, exceeding the high estimate of £500,000 ($662,000).One of the tiaras is gold with blue enamel accents and vivid red carnelian engravings featuring classical portraits. The diadem is being offered as part of a jewelry set, alongside matching earrings, a belt ornament and comb.The second gold and enamel tiara features cameo portraits of the ancient Greek deities Zeus, Dionysus, Medusa, Pan and Gaia in agate and jasper. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which previously held the item on loan, noted that it was “probably a gift from Napoleon’s sister Caroline Murat.”
The empress, also known as Joséphine de Beauharnais after her first marriage to the nobleman and army general Alexandre de Beauharnais, has been the subject of ongoing fascination in recent decades. Napoleon’s lovelorn letters to her are renowned for their passion, and she has been depicted as a clever seductress who ultimately relinquished her marriage when she and the emperor were unable to produce an heir together.The tiaras are both part of 19th-century parures — or jewelry sets — that are emblematic of neoclassical design, which flourished during Napoleon’s reign. Following the unrest of the French Revolution, the emperor judiciously evoked ancient Roman traditions, styles and design in order to associate his rule with an ancient lineage, according to Sotheby’s.This association is present in the smallest of details on both tiaras — namely the cameo and intaglio portraits of classical deities and ancient figures that Napoleon and Joséphine often wore, including on the former’s coronation crown. Centuries earlier, Roman emperors had worn similar symbols of power carved into semiprecious gems.
“Empress Joséphine was much more than just a collector of antiquities,” said Kristian Spofforth, who helms Sotheby’s jewels department in London, in a press statement released ahead of the auction. “By being the first to incorporate these cameos and intaglios into her dress, wearing them side by side with pearls and diamonds, she created an entire new fashion that swept Paris and the world, based on neoclassical forms.”Despite Joséphine’s position as a tastemaking empress, she came from a precarious background as the eldest daughter of an aristocratic French family that had built and lost its sugar cane wealth on the colonized island of Martinique. She was married off to de Beauharnais as a teenager, though they separated after two children and an unhappy marriage in Paris. Her husband was later guillotined during the Revolution. Although also imprisoned, Joséphine escaped the same fate and rose up the social ladder before meeting the young army officer who would eventually make her empress.
The jewelry industry suffered as a result of the political turbulence, economic depression and hostility against luxury that marked the French Revolution and its aftermath. But rather than promoting a more ascetic style than the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, Joséphine also tended toward the lavish. Sotheby’s said in a press release that, in a period of just six years, the empress “spent an impressive sum of over 25 million francs on jewelry and clothes, far exceeding her designated allowance.”As Spofforth noted, jewelry was often disassembled and refashioned according to changing tastes, making the survival of the two parures “truly exceptional.”