It was another kind of spectacle altogether when a desperate Marie Antoinette, finding herself imprisoned in the convent of the Feuillants in the midst of the French Revolution in 1792, surreptitiously proffered a bag of pearls and diamonds to her friend Lady Sutherland, the wife of the British ambassador to France. No doubt anticipating a return to her sumptuous lifestyle once the masses had settled down, the Queen reportedly entrusted Sutherland with the gems after realizing that the British aristocrat had diplomatic immunity and could therefore return the jewelry once the Queen had escaped. Fast-forward about 50 years, and the pearls, each imbued with a misty gray shade and some in a rare teardrop shape, were mounted on a necklace to celebrate the marriage of Lady Sutherland’s grandson, George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, to Anne Hay-Mckenzie. The necklace has remained in the family—or rather, the family vault—ever since.
“The owner was reluctant to sell, but he just feels that if they’re not being worn, they should be in different hands,” says Raymond Sancroft-Baker, the London-based senior director of Christie’s Jewellery (the necklace’s owner, who declined to be identified, is a direct descendant of Lady Sutherland). Christie’s is betting the heightened fascination with the extravagance-mad Queen, following Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film and a spate of celebrated biographies, will seduce bidders. Taking a gentle jab at the rivalry between the two auction houses, Sancroft-Baker adds, “These pearls have never been on the market before—most people didn’t even know they existed, which sets them apart. So much was taken from Marie Antoinette when she was imprisoned, and so much of it dispersed—it’s a huge historical moment to be able to sell something that we know belonged to her.”