30 January 2021

The Austrian Wildflower Tiara


Last month, a stunning tiara was sold at auction at Sotheby's. The piece has both an American story and an Austrian provenance. Here's more on the history of the Austrian Wildflower Tiara.

Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney and his wife, Marylou, attend opening night at the Met in New York, September 1965 (Keystone Press/Alamy)

The tiara was sold at Sotheby's in December, part of the sale of the collection of the late Marylou Whitney. Marylou, who was a socialite and a noted racehorse owner, was the fourth wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Sonny, as he was generally called, was a descendant of two famous American families, the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys. His mother was the socialite and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt (who famously founded the Whitney Museum of American Art), and his father was Harry Payne Whitney, an icon in the world of racing. Sonny grew up in the midst of incredible wealth and privilege, and he turned that heritage into numerous successful business ventures of his own. He was also a thoroughbred owner and breeder and a film producer (with his cousin, John Hay Whitney). He served in both World War I and II, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force in the late 1950s. He later also held a prominent post in the Commerce Department and was appointed a special envoy to several European nations.

Sonny married four times. He was not quite 59 when he married his fourth wife, Marie Louise Schroeder of Kansas City, who had acted in one of the films he'd produced. More than twenty-five years his junior, Marylou, as she was generally called, had also been married before, and like Sonny, had several children. After their marriage, she became equally passionate about the sport of racing. The couple were a prominent part of the social circles in New York and Saratoga Springs until Sonny's death in 1992. Marylou continued to be an active philanthropist and racehorse owner for years more. She died in July 2019.


One of the treasures that Sonny acquired for Marylou during their marriage was a stunning nineteenth-century diamond and ruby tiara. Following Marylou's death, Sotheby's mounted a sale of treasures from her estate. The tiara was one of the jewels of the auction. The lot notes for the piece described it as "of garland design, featuring floral and foliate motifs pavé-set with old mine, old European, pear, single and rose-cut diamonds, accented with cushion-cut and round rubies." It was offered along with its fitted case.

Sonny had purchased the tiara for Marylou either as a wedding or an anniversary gift. (She told the story differently in various interviews over the course of her life; in an interview with the Palm Beach Post in 1991, she said that she was "only 32" when Sonny gave it to her, which would fit with the wedding present timeline.) He bought the piece from Harry Winston in New York, reportedly telling his new wife, "You are my queen, and every queen needs a crown." The auction notes also share that a handwritten note on Marylou's stationery was provided, giving the provenance that had been shared by the firm: "This fragile and beautiful Austrian tiara dates back to the days of Franz-Joseph and was one of the most superb ornaments there was to behold in the Viennese Court. The design and motif features sprays of sparkling wild roses and frozen dew drops, fashioned in silver and gold and completely encrusted in diamonds and rubies."

Georg Decker's portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, ca. 1869 (Wikimedia Commons)

Other descriptions go further than simply stating that the tiara "dates back to the days of Franz-Joseph." Sotheby's notes that the tiara is "stated to be from the Collection of Empress Elisabeth of Austria." The provenance would be incredibly difficult to prove, and indeed, the auction house doesn't seem to have been able to make a firm link between the tiara and the famous Empress "Sissi," whose story became legend thanks to a popular series of twentieth-century German films.


But whether or not evidence can be found that conclusively links the tiara to Empress Elisabeth, Marylou Whitney definitely seems to have believed that her tiara belonged to her. Marylou clearly delighted in sharing the story of her tiara with others, discussing its imperial provenance, and even offering a rather gory detail: the tiara's case was smudged with blood, which she believed had been the result of Elisabeth's assassination in Geneva in 1898.


In another conversation with the Palm Beach Post, also in 1991, Marylou added even more to the story connecting the tiara to Elisabeth. She told the newspaper that she wore the tiara to "a royal wedding in Austria about 17 years ago," confiding that "when I walked into this party everyone sort of gasped. They said things like, 'I often wondered what happened to my great aunt's tiara,' or 'I had the empress painted in my apartment in that.'" She added that one guest had even attempted a bit of cultural repatriation, asking, "Are you going to give it back?" (She did not share her answer.)


But really, it may be next to impossible to prove whether or not the empress ever wore the tiara. However, the piece certainly gained an extra layer of fascinating history thanks to the time it spent with Marylou Whitney. In the summer of 1967, thieves broke into her home in Saratoga Springs, getting away with the lion's share of her jewelry. She told the Ladies' Home Journal afterwards that even though most of her jewelry was taken, she "still has [her] tiara and pearls." 

Her discussions with the Palm Beach Post yielded some fantastic little nuggets of information about the tiara, which she had worn as she "swirled on [the] Breakers dance floor." She shared what it was like to wear the piece: "All the flowers are on tiny, tiny springs so they move when you walk." And, delightfully, she seemed to truly enjoy the experience of wearing such a fabulous piece of antique jewelry. "I hold my head up and smile when I wear mine," she said while discussing tiaras with one reporter.

Marylou at the opening night at the Met in New York, September 1965 (Keystone Press/Alamy)

When asked in the '90s why more people didn't wear tiaras, she replied, "Most people don't have them." She elaborated, "It's not very practical [to have one] unless you're royalty." And she didn't seem like she was on the lookout for additional diadems to add to her collection. "It's the only one I have," she explained. The reporter from the Palm Beach Post editorialized, "And the only one she needs."

The auction of the tiara at Sotheby's was originally scheduled for April 2020, and then was moved to the summer, and then finally took place on December 9. The tiara was estimated to sell for between $100,000 and $200,000. When the hammer fell, it exceeded the estimate, bringing in a tidy $226,800.