Empress Joséphine Bonaparte’s tiaras set to auction at Sotheby’s – ‘Finest delicate work’

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Joséphine de Beauharnais is remembered as Napoléon Bonaparte’s wife and the one who convinced him to reinstate slavery in the French colonies after it was first abolished in 1794. Her name is now back in the news cycle thanks to an upcoming auction at Sotheby’s London.

After being owned in a private UK collection for more than 150 years, two tiaras that Sotheby’s recognized as part of the Empress’ possessions will be up for auction on December 7.

“When the family came to us with these tiaras they said they had once belonged to Joséphine,” Kristian Spofforth, jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s, told The Telegraph UK.

“Often with cases like this you look at the piece of jewellery in question and say, ‘Absolutely no chance’.

“This was the opposite.

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“I picked them up and thought, ‘Yes – this ticks every single box for Josephine, from the design to the classical references.

“And the fact that there were very few people in Europe in that period who could have owned something like this.”

Rumour has it, the Empress had to sell off most of her jewels to cover huge debts when Napoléon divorced her.

The tiaras both pay homage to ancient Rome with cameos representing figures of the mythology.

When Napoléon and his wife came into power, they used references from the Roman Empire to legitimize their new government with regal style and symbols.

Their tiaras, jewels and fashion are all imprinted with a Neoclassical style.

The two artefacts will come with a set of accessories that were all reportedly Joséphine’s.

They are set with cameos engraved with classical heads, some thought to be ancient, which were believed to endow the wearer with the qualities they depicted such as heroism, faithfulness, and love.

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“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 entirely new fashion that swept Paris and the world, based on Neoclassical forms,” Kristian Spofforth told Town and Country magazine.

“The jewels offered here demonstrate the finest delicate work by the finest French workshops, and, today, there are hardly any comparable pieces in the world,” she added.

Most neoclassical designs were taken apart and remodelled once fashions shifted, which make these pieces an especially great discovery.

The first tiara, immortalised on Joséphine’s head in an 1808 portrait painted by Andrea Appiani, is decorated with blue champlevé enamel and set with twenty-five carnelian intaglios engraved with classical heads.

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The diadem will come with a pair of matching pendant earrings, a hair comb, and a belt ornament set with a carnelian cameo of Bacchus, all offered in their 19th-century leather case.

The other tiara features five cameos depicting Zeus, Medusa, Dionysus, Pan, and Gaia, offered with a belt clasp and ornament, also in their original fitted case.

Combined, the items are made out of gold, carnelian and enamel. and are expected to fetch between $410,000 (£297k) to $690,000 (£500k) but could go for much more.

In 2018, a pearl and diamond pendant that belonged to the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette, who was Joséphine’s predecessor, sold for a record $36m (£26m).

It had been valued at just $2m (£1,45m) prior to the auction.

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