Mineral Review

What happened to the Russian crown jewels?

After the revolution, most of the crown jewels fell into the hands of the new government. Subsequently, they were added to those found in the palaces of members of the imperial family and the highest nobility. This story reads like a true detective story with many variables. Most of the royal jewels, the so-called crown jewels, were kept in a room specially designated for them – the Diamond Room of the Winter Palace. They were issued at the request of the family. After the outbreak of the First World War, for greater safety, they decided to transport them to Moscow, to the Armory Chamber. They collected them in a hurry, without making an accurate inventory (literally, somehow rearranging them with tissue paper so as not to damage them), which subsequently made it extremely difficult to try to find out their fate. Many decorations were “lost” at this stage. After all, after the storming of the palace, it was plundered, perhaps taking some of the decorations that were not sent to Moscow. Nine chests arrived at the Armory. It is believed that they were subsequently transported again, again rearranging (and losing) the contents. After the declaration of Soviet power, all imperial values ​​were declared the property of the Soviets and were subject to nationalization. The chests from the Armory Chamber were the first to attract attention. Actually, it was these jewels, and the income received after their sale, that formed the basis of the “initial capital” for the formation of the regime (payment of public debt, modernization of production and other emergency needs). However, even here there was a human factor. The reverence for the idea faded in the brilliance of the diamonds. In 1922, a commission of 63 people was assembled to inventory the imperial jewelry (in addition to the crown ones, personal ones were already added, stored in banks and in the own palaces of different branches of the family). An independent expert in the person of Agathon Faberge was also invited. However, many of the participants succumbed to temptation and began selling jewelry, trying to make money. When this was discovered, more than twenty people were shot, and the rest of the culprits were imprisoned. It was probably at this moment that the legend was born that the Bolsheviks plundered the treasures of the Romanovs. To a certain extent it corresponds to reality, but, of course, only partly. The next convening of the commission was headed by a respected scientist, mineralogist and academician Alexander Evgenievich Fersman. And already under his leadership, jewelry and stones were described and documented. Subsequently, Fersman himself called this work one of the key stages of his life, and the catalog he compiled (“Diamond Fund of the USSR” in 1925) became a reference book for domestic art historians for many years. Fersman not only described the size of the stones and the type of item, but sought to indicate the authorship of the jewelry and give a couple of characteristics of the value of the item. At the end of the 1920s, when the new government desperately needed any raise money, it was decided that part of the imperial jewelry from Fersman’s inventory could be sold, then using this money for the needs of the working people’s country. Fersman, A.E. Treasury of diamonds and precious stones of Russia [Russia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones]. People’s Commissariat for Finance, 1925-1926. Photo: Litfond auction house A new commission was set up, and by 1927 the treasures were sorted into those that would remain as national treasures and those that would go to auction. The first immediately included coronation regalia (among them the Great Imperial Crown with a historical spinel, a scepter with a unique Orlov diamond and others) and individual stones, as well as many wonderful jewelry of the 18th and 19th centuries. Jewelry from the early 20th century was mostly sold, as it was considered modern and less significant. See also

Bestiary of Jean Schlumberger

Those jewelry that it was decided to sell were partially disassembled into frames and stones. Photographs have been preserved illustrating this essentially barbaric process. However, it was easier to sell this way: buyers were more willing to buy individual stones than large and heavy jewelry. Settings made of precious stones were melted down into ingots, which also served as hard currency in external payments. In total, jewelry and stones were valued at a fabulous sum of about 670 million rubles.

Christie’s auction

It was decided to sell the jewelry selected for sale in London. The counterparty to this, without exaggeration, deal of the century was the Christie’s auction house (subsequently such auctions were repeated, and private agents also arranged deals). Christie’s auction took place on March 16 and included 124 lots. Some of the lots contained several items, so in fact more than one and a half hundred items were sold. In addition to some of the crown jewels, these were personal jewelry from the palace of Nicholas II’s mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, as well as from the famous Yusupov treasure, accidentally discovered in their family palace. As a result of the auction, newspapers quoted the total amount of proceeds at 150 thousand pounds, noting that it was obviously underestimated, because the buyers were mainly traders who then intended to resell such iconic items with a large margin. Among the most interesting things at that auction were, for example, the wedding crown of the Russian empresses, studded with ancient diamonds, and several tiaras of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna made by famous court jewelers (in particular, a tiara with gold and diamond ears, as well as a tiara with pendants made of flawless large pearls work of the Bolin company). Subsequently, many of these things ended up in private collections and began to surface at auctions. And they continue to appear to this day. Of course, for completely different amounts than the auction price of 150 thousand pounds for everything. Now the thing is supported by its provenance, imperial “trace” and belonging to a turning point in Russian history.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Weekly digest about jewelry art. With the onset of the Troubles of 1917, the royal family left the capital and moved several times. The geography of the last days of the Romanovs is vast – from Tsarskoe Selo to Tobolsk and Yekaterinburg. Nicholas II, the empress, their daughters and heir were shot on the night of July 17, 1918. It is interesting that the firing squad did not immediately cope with the Grand Duchesses: they shot in the chest, but the bullets bounced off, which caused superstitious horror among the soldiers. As it turned out, the girls’ corsets had family jewels sewn into them, which their mother asked them to secretly bring with them from Tobolsk (the empress and emperor and heir left first, and the daughters followed them later). When the soldiers hid the bodies of the dead, a lot of jewelry was discovered. Several strings of pearls, for example, were hidden in the empress’s belt. Some of the jewelry was taken and hidden (this “execution” treasure was found only a year later), something was not noticed in the hurry and darkness, and the jewelry was taken by the White Guards who had already taken the city. The latter compiled an inventory of the jewelry and stones found. There were a lot of memorabilia, but there were also really valuable things, such as a 12-carat teardrop-shaped diamond. It is believed that it was sewn into the hem of the Empress’s dress. Subsequently, many of these jewelry ended up abroad. And their terrible fate did not prevent them from selling well.

New life for jewelry

Until now, at large auctions, those “Siberian” things pop up every now and then. There are, of course, many legends around them, some of which, however, may turn out to be true, because such jewelry was made to order, companies kept their description, which made them easily recognizable. Thus, in 1920, a pendant with a yellow diamond weighing 102,5 carats, created by the Bolin company, was put up for sale in Stockholm. And although it was sold by an anonymous buyer, the pendant was immediately associated with the Russian crown jewels. The most popular version said that the empress took this more than “liquid” decoration with her to Tobolsk, hiding it along with others among her things. Further traces of him were lost. The decoration, of course, found its buyer due to the uniqueness of the stone, which was later named “Aschberg” (after the name of the new owner), and this page was only the beginning of its long history.

Romanov emigrants and their wealth

The members of the imperial family closest to the throne suffered the same fate as the monarchs. However, many managed to go abroad and start a new life there. To a large extent, with the money raised from the sale of diamonds that they managed to take out of the country.

Maria Feodorovna

The most noble emigrant in this galaxy was the mother of Nicholas II, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. She was the sister of the British Queen Alexandra (Queen Mother – a title similar to the Russian “Dowager Empress”) and initially remained in England. In 1920, Maria Fedorovna moved to her sisters’ family castle in Denmark, where she lived out her life in full confidence that her son was alive. She rejected any evidence of the death of Nikolai and his family and until the end of her days she was convinced that one day she would be reunited with them. This, of course, did not happen, but pretty soon her daughter, Grand Duchess Olga and her family came to see her, which at least partially alleviated the empress’s grief. Maria Feodorovna herself had a large collection of jewelry, which she managed to take with her from Russia. And Olga added her own to them – they were brought to her by the faithful maid Mimka, who also fled the country and found her mistress. The jewelry was, as usual, sewn into the hem of Mima’s skirt.

Olga and Ksenia

After the death of Maria Feodorovna, her jewelry was divided among her daughters. The already mentioned Olga and the second daughter, Ksenia. Olga added them to hers and successfully sold them, buying a farm with the proceeds and providing herself and her family with financial stability for many years to come. Ksenia also tried to sell her part, but much less cleverly. Her most famous sale was a brooch with a large pearl in a diamond ring, which her mother never parted with. Photographs of Maria Feodorovna wearing this brooch with baby Nicholas II in her arms have been preserved. But several unscrupulous buyers never paid the princess the bills. She tried to claim them through the court, but the case was not progressed, and as a result, Ksenia lived on benefits from the related British crown until the end of her days.

Heritage of the British Crown

The sisters, by mutual agreement, sold some of the jewelry to the then Queen of England Mary (grandmother of Elizabeth II), who adored jewelry. Actually, the best things from Maria Feodorovna’s inheritance ended up going to her and are now the property of the British crown, and Elizabeth II sometimes appears in public wearing them. In particular, they included a diamond brooch with a stunning sapphire and teardrop pearl, and a stunning pearl choker. One of the most famous pieces of jewelry from this collection is a necklace of 32 large pearls, which was later inherited by King Edward. And after his abdication due to his marriage to the divorced American Wallis Simpson, she already wore the elegant status of the Duchess of Windsor. The British Queen Mary also bought other jewelry from the fugitive Romanovs. The second most important imperial “treasure” belonged to Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, a representative of the eldest line of the family. German by birth, she was married to one of the sons of Alexander II, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich. After the revolution, she emigrated to France and lived, from time to time, “cashing in” her jewelry and stones. She managed to take out some of them herself, but the second, most significant one was brought to her later by her long-time friend, the British Albert Stopford.

Russian adventure of an Englishman

And this is a story of exceptional adventurism and luck! The diplomat Stopford was one of the last to leave Petrograd at that time, and before leaving he managed to get through the back door and through the secret door into the princess’s chambers in the Vladimir Palace, open the safe with jewelry and take them out. Wrapped in newspapers and hidden in an old bag! Subsequently, Stopford reflected all the vicissitudes of this campaign in his memoirs, “The Russian Diary of an Englishman.” See also

Sir Elton John Collection: Glamor and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Dying, Maria Pavlovna bequeathed the remaining jewelry (and there were a lot of them; there are photographs of the princess in which she is literally strewn with diamonds and pearls, for which she had a weakness) to her children. Accordingly, the executors divided them into four equal parts: three sons and a daughter. They subsequently also sold jewelry to other European monarchs and nobility. The British Queen (the same Mary), in particular, received the famous tiara of diamond rings with pearl pendants, the so-called Vladimir tiara. Romanian – kokoshnik tiara with sapphires and diamonds by Cartier. The Romanian crowned couple gradually collected a whole collection of former imperial jewelry. King Ferdinand bought as a gift to his wife Maria (the maternal granddaughter of Alexander II) everything that came up on the market. Knowing the family’s preferences, his daughter’s fiancé, King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, also bought a luxurious set of diamonds and emeralds (tiara and necklace) from the Romanov heritage as a wedding gift.

Maria Pavlovna Jr.

It was sold by another Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. In order not to confuse it with the previous one, in the history of imperial emigration it is usually called the youngest. Maria Pavlovna, by the way, unlike many Romanovs, did not rest on her “precious” laurels, but tried in every possible way to earn money: she took photographs and managed a lace cooperative! She lived in America, in Argentina (!), but died in Europe, where she returned in her declining years. The book of her memoirs, recreating the amazing fate of this restless woman, became incredibly popular. The last high-profile event in the history of the crowned jewels of the Russian Empire happened. quite recently. In 2009, jewelry from the collection of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (the elder) was sold at Sotheby’s auction house in London. Yes, yes, what she took with her and then shared with her four children was a significant part of her treasures, but it did not redeem the entire collection. “Additional” jewelry was found in two pillows that were kept in Stockholm after they were taken out of Bolshevik Russia by the Swedish diplomatic mission, which did not want to deal with the new government. They were handed over to the diplomats by a professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts, watercolorist Richard Bergholz, Maria Pavlovna’s confidant. Actually, until the 2000s, the Swedes had no idea about the contents of the crown pillows, but during the next inventory of the embassy property, they were opened and jewelry was discovered. The jewelry was handed over to the heirs, who put them up for auction. In total there are about 60 items, mainly cigarette cases and cufflinks made by Faberge and Bohlin. The triumphant auction ended with a sum exceeding £7 million.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Weekly digest about jewelry art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button