Just when you thought the outstanding royal jewel auction season had concluded, Sotheby’s is offering two more suites of jewelry with royal connections. Here’s a closer look at two parures of jewels that purportedly belonged to Empress Josephine of France.
The first set of jewels is made of gold and enamel set with carnelian intaglios. The parure, which comes in a fitted case, includes a diadem, a comb, a belt ornament, and a pair of earrings. The lot notes speculate that some of the carvings set in the jewels are ancient, but the entire suite apparently dates to ca. 1805.
And here’s the second set, which includes a tiara, a belt ornament, and a belt clasp. This parure is made of gold and enamel and set with cameos, some of which may be ancient in origin. It also comes in a fitted case. Unlike the previous set, this one has an established maker: it’s signed JAO, for Jacques-Ambroise Oliveras. It also apparently dates to ca. 1805.
Both parures, as well as many other items from the same auction, are being sold by the same British owners. They’re in the private collection of descendants of the Lascelles family. “By tradition,” the lot notes tell us, they all originally belonged to Josephine de Beauharnais, who was Empress of France during her marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte. Certainly, Josephine owned numerous pieces of jewelry modeled on pieces from ancient Greece and Italy, especially pieces set with glyptics like cameos and intaglios. (Both are kinds of carvings. Cameos are raised relief images, with the design projecting out of the stone, while intaglios are negative images, carved into the stone’s flat surface.) Above, Josephine is depicted wearing a diadem and necklace decorated with cameos in an 1808 portrait by the Italian artist Andrea Appiani.
And here’s a second portrait of Josephine by Appiani, showing the empress wearing a more elaborate tiara of cameos and pearls, as well as a cameo brooch (or belt ornament). This portrait, which is part of the collection at the Château de Malmaison, was reportedly completed around 1807. Napoleon’s love for cameos, and his fascination with the ancient world, meant that Josephine’s jewelry collection was stocked with cameo jewels that referenced the adornments of antiquity.
While many of Josephine’s jewels were gifts from Napoleon, the lot notes for the jewels from the upcoming auction identify a different giver for these pieces. They state that, by tradition, the parures were given to Josephine by her sister-in-law, Caroline Bonaparte Murat. She’s shown wearing cameo jewels in the portrait above, painted by François Gérard around 1810. She appears to have shared her brother’s interest in the world of ancient Rome; after all, the Bonaparte (Buonoparte) family had Italian roots. Caroline found herself residing in Italy as well. She was married to Joachim Murat, one of her brother’s generals, and in 1808, Napoleon made Joachim the new King of Naples. Murat held the title until 1815. After the fall of Napoleon, Murat was captured by an army loyal to King Ferdinand IV of Naples and executed.
Empress Josephine (shown here wearing a cameo tiara in a François Gérard portrait, ca. 1801) died at Malmaison in May 1814. The Sotheby’s lot notes give us a general idea of what happened to the two parures after her death. They ended up in Britain with the Lascelles family (whose name you may recognize, as one of them married a twentieth-century princess). The lot notes state that the jewels were “possibly acquired” by Viscount Lascelles, son of the 1st Earl of Harewood, either from Josephine herself or from her estate.
Known as Beau, Lord Lascelles was a major collector, and he made trips to Paris after the revolution to acquire various pieces for his collections of art objects and china. (I think it’s worth noting that the family financed such purchases with the fortune they made in the Caribbean slave trade.) Coincidentally, Beau Lascelles died in London in June 1814, just a few days after Josephine’s death in Paris. Some British newspapers even reported their deaths in the same column. The timing certainly makes it seem more likely that he acquired the pieces from her before she died.
The parures stayed in the Lascelles family for generations. Sotheby’s only identifies one other owner by name: Catherine Lloyd-Baker. Born Catherine Lascelles, she was a granddaughter of the 2nd Earl of Harewood (and a great-niece of Beau Lascelles). She married Granville Lloyd-Baker in 1869 and died in 1890 at the age of 47. Sotheby’s states that the jewels stayed with her descendants after her death, and the “present owner” is one of those descendants.
Let’s take a closer look at the individual pieces being sold. The lot notes describe the tiara from the intaglio parure as “a diadem, designed as a row of interlinked circle motifs decorated with blue champlevé enamel, entwined by an openwork ribbon decorated with scroll and foliate motifs and set with twenty-five carnelian intaglios.” We also get a description of the enamel-bordered intaglios themselves. They include “male and female classical heads including philosophers, Roman Princes, Cupid driving a quadriga, goats, a lion devouring prey, an eagle, Jupiter Serapis and scenes of sacrifice.”
Here’s a look at the back of the diadem. It’s not a complete circlet, but rather is open at the back. I’m guessing this diadem really had to be worn low across the forehead, in the style made so fashionable by Empress Josephine at the time. (You’ll even see reference to this style as “à la Joséphine.”)
While we’re fairly familiar with royal jewelry set with cameo, thanks in large part to the Swedish Cameo Parure (also from Empress Josephine’s collection, naturally), intaglios are very rarely seen in the jewels we discuss here. But there is a prominent suite of aristocratic jewelry featuring intaglios: the Devonshire Parure. Coincidentally, Sotheby’s produced a video on the parure about five years ago, which you can stream here. (There’s one error: the set was produced to be worn at the coronation of Alexander II, not Nicholas II.)
Here are the other pieces from the intaglio parure. Sotheby’s describes them as “a pair of pendent earrings, each set with a single intaglio and similarly decorated,” as well as “a hair comb, and a belt ornament.” The glyptic in the center of the belt ornament is a carnelian cameo depicting the Greek princess/goddess Ariadne.
The second parure, the Jacques-Ambroise Oliveras set, features cameos carved over centuries. The diadem from the set features five cameos, all of which are identified in the lot notes: a “cameo with the head of Medusa, possibly late 16th century,” a “cameo with a profile of of Zeus, probably 18th century,” a “cameo with a bust of Pan, probably 18th century,” a “cameo with a head of Bacchus, probably 18th century,” and a “cameo with Gaia nursing a baby, possibly late 16th century.”
The last cameo seems like a very interesting choice as a gift from Caroline Murat to Josephine. After all, one of the main conflicts in the Napoleon-Josephine marriage stemmed from her inability to provide him with an heir. Around the time she apparently gave Josephine these jewels, Caroline also arranged for Napoleon to take a mistress, allowing him to father a child and proving that Josephine was the one who was unable to have more children. A cameo depicting motherhood seems like a pointed choice on Caroline’s part—seen in a positive light, perhaps a good luck charm, or through a more negative lens, maybe something more accusatory?
The lot notes from Sotheby’s continue the description of the cameos, noting that they are placed “within a border of blue enamel and connected by two rows of undulating entrelac de ruban motifs, each with a blue enamel lozenge motif at the centre.”
The second piece from the Oliveras set is “a belt clasp of similar design,” which features “an agate cameo with the head of Medusa.” The lot notes also posit a date for the cameo: “possibly late 16th century.”
And the set is completed with “a belt ornament,” made of an enamel-ringed “hardstone cameo with a profile of Zeus.” This cameo is thought to be one of the newer ones in the set, made between 1780 and 1800.
The two parures will be sold in Sotheby’s “Treasures” auction in London on Tuesday, December 7. Several other pieces from the same private collection, including numerous individual cameos, are also included in the sale. But the intaglio and cameo parures are expected to bring the highest price from the collector’s offerings. The carnelian set has an auction estimate of 200,000-300,000 pounds (about $266,000-400,000 USD). And the Oliveras set is expected to bring between 100,000-200,000 pounds (about $133,000-266,000 USD).