The Romanov sapphires aren’t the only royal jewels being sold at auction by Sotheby’s in Geneva next week! Today, we’re taking a closer look at the most fascinating tiara from the auction catalogue: a diamond and sapphire palmette tiara that once belonged to the Battenbergs.
Sotheby’s calls the jewel an “impressive sapphire and diamond tiara” that dates to the “mid 19th century.” The tiara is “designed as five detachable graduated palmettes, each set with a cushion-shaped sapphire enhanced with cushion-, circular- and single-cut diamonds.” The tiara is not signed by its maker, but it comes with a fitted case that may offer clues to its provenance. “This tiara,” the lot notes clarify, “is being sold with a fitted case signed Robert Koch, although it was certainly made after the tiara itself.”
Here’s a closer look at the tiara’s central palmette element. Something about the piece calls to mind another royal tiara: Queen Sofia’s Tiara, which is part of the Swedish royal collection. Sotheby’s also notes that they sold a very similar tiara back in 1994; that jewel came from the Thurn und Taxis family.
This tiara can be traced back to another European princely family: the Battenbergs. The patriarch of the family was Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine, son of Grand Duke Ludwig II of Hesse (or, depending who you believe, the son of Ludwig’s stablemaster, August von Senarclens de Grancy). In 1841, Prince Alexander’s sister, Princess Marie, married the future Emperor Alexander II of Russia. Prince Alexander accompanied his sister to St. Petersburg, and there, he fell in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Countess Julia von Hauke. (Alexander and Julia are pictured together above in 1885.)
Julia was the daughter of a Polish general, not a member of a royal family. Neither the imperial family in Russia nor the grand ducal family in Hesse approved of the relationship, but Prince Alexander persisted. He and Julia finally married shortly before the birth of their first child, and eventually, their unequal (or “morganatic”) relationship was acknowledged by Prince Alexander’s brother, Grand Duke Ludwig III of Hesse. He granted Julia the new title of Countess of Battenberg, eventually upgrading her the title of Princess of Battenberg. Alexander and Julia’s children were able to use the Battenberg princely title as well.
Alexander and Julia became the parents of five children, several of whom will be familiar to you because of their brilliant royal marriages. Their eldest son, Prince Louis of Battenberg, married his cousin, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine; they were the parents of several famous royal children, including Lord Mountbatten, Queen Louise of Sweden, and Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark. The late Duke of Edinburgh was their grandson. Alexander and Julia’s third son, Prince Henry of Battenberg, married Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom. Their descendants included Queen Ena of Spain, and the current Spanish monarch, King Felipe VI, is their great-great-grandson.
Prince Alexander of Battenberg (1857-1893), Alexander and Julia’s second son, is pictured in the illustrated portrait above. His royal life was an exceptionally unique one. During his childhood visits to Russia, he became close to his uncle, Emperor Alexander II. When Alexander was only 20, the emperor embarked on a war in Bulgaria, aiming to remove the territory from the control of the Ottoman Empire. A peace treaty in 1878 secured Bulgarian independence, and the new country decided to elect a new monarch. Emperor Alexander suggested his nephew, Prince Alexander, for the job, and the new Bulgarian parliament unanimously agreed. Prince Alexander became the first Sovereign Prince of Bulgaria, arriving in Sofia in 1879. The 22-year-old prince had suddenly been vaulted from his minor place in a morganatic branch of a German royal family to the position of ruling prince.
Two years later, in 1881, Prince Alexander’s Russian imperial uncle was assassinated. The prince’s cousin became Emperor Alexander III of Russia. Over the course of the next five years, relations between St. Petersburg and Sofia soured. By 1886, the Russians and their Bulgarian sympathizers decided to engineer a coup to overthrow Prince Alexander and install a new leader in Bulgaria. In August 1886, Prince Alexander was surprised at his residence and arrested. He was compelled to sign abdication papers and taken out of the country. Though he managed to find his way back to Bulgaria soon afterward, the conflict inside the country as a result of the coup was so great (and his relationship with his powerful Russian cousin had become so troubled) that he abdicated, reportedly as a way to try to calm down the political situation. (The following year, the Bulgarian parliament elected another prince, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to serve as their ruler.)
After his adventure as the ruler of Bulgaria, Prince Alexander settled into a much quieter and more private life. Though he had often been suggested as a match for various European princesses (including Princess Viktoria of Prussia, a daughter of the German emperor), he ultimately followed his heart and married for love. In Darmstadt, he met an opera singer, Johanna Loisinger, who had been contracted for an extended series of performances at the court theater. One British society paper, The Queen, reported in 1889 that “Prince Alexander of Battenberg, like his father, has always been a great lover of music, and the personal attractions of the gifted artist proved powerful enough to cause him to disregard his past, renounce his future career, and make her his wife.” The prince and the opera singer were married in February 1889 on the French Riviera, and they made a new home together in Graz.
Like that of Alexander’s parents, the union between Prince Alexander and Johanna Loisinger was not an equal one. The couple used the titles of Count and Countess of Hartenau, which they were able to pass on to their children. Their son, Count Assen of Hartenau, was born in January 1890. His younger sister, Countess Zwetana of Hartenau, followed three years later, in October 1893.
At some point during the couple’s marriage, the diamond and sapphire palmette tiara became part of Johanna’s jewelry collection. The lot notes from Sotheby’s, written by the jewelry historian Christophe Vachaudez, explain, “It is unclear whether the prince inherited a tiara as a wedding gift or whether he inherited from his father in 1888.” The Sotheby’s auction catalogue includes two photographs of Johanna wearing the tiara. The image above shows her wearing just the base of the piece, with the palmettes removed. The other (a very low quality image, unfortunately) shows her wearing the complete tiara.
In November 1893, Alexander and Johanna’s daughter was less than a month old when, quite suddenly, Prince Alexander died. The prince reportedly suffered from an intestinal condition, and ultimately died of blood poisoning. He was only 36 years old. The Evening Standard reported that the prince’s death was an incredible shock to his family: “The tragic, almost sudden, death of the Prince produced the greatest gloom in all ranks of the population, and the depressing effect has been intensified by the unfavourable news as to the condition of the Countess Hartenau, which is such as to give rise to serious apprehension. The Countess had scarcely left her bed after her recent confinement when her husband was suddenly struck down. Throughout the Prince’s short illness, which was never expected to have a fatal termination, it was thought better to conceal from the Countess, ill as she was, the serious condition of her husband. The shock was all the greater when the news of his death could no longer be withheld.”
Prince Henry of Battenberg headed from Windsor to Austria to serve as the chief mourner at the funeral. Eventually, Prince Alexander’s body was moved to a grand mausoleum in Sofia. A large public funeral was held in the city, attended by Johanna and by Bulgaria’s new sovereign prince, Ferdinand. Following Prince Alexander’s death, Johanna and her children (pictured above, ca. 1894) moved to Vienna. There, her love of music sustained her, and she became a patron of the city’s musical institutions. Especially in the early years, she also kept in touch with her husband’s royal relatives. In 1895, Johanna even had a personal audience with Queen Victoria in the south of France, a meeting that was engineered by her brother- and sister-in-law, Prince and Princess Henry of Battenberg.
Johanna lived a long life, passing away in 1951. It’s not clear what journey her tiara has taken in the interim, as she has no living descendants. Sotheby’s is simply advertising the jewel as “formerly in the collection of Johanna Loisinger.” Regardless, there are surely hopes that the piece’s royal history will yield monetary results at auction. The tiara, which will be sold in Geneva on November 10, is expected to fetch between 70,000-120,000 Swiss francs (or about $77,000-130,000 USD).