From Napoleon with love! Gold and diamond necklace French leader gave his Polish mistress goes up for auction
A gold and diamond encrusted necklace that French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte gave to his Polish lover Maria Walewska has gone under the hammer at auction.
The original receipt that came with the necklace shows that it was purchased in Breslau, now Wrocław, on May 4, 1810, just six days before Walewska gave birth to their lovechild.
Experts believe that the Frenchman bought the piece of jewellery to mark this occasion, even though he had just married Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria in a dynastic union motivated by power politics.
Napoleon’s gift to the prepartum Polish countess was made specially for the occasion by Breslau jeweller Johann Gottlob Holub.
The gold adornment features eleven diamonds, and a serpent and vine motif, which appropriately symbolises fertility.
Walewska’s relationship with Napoleon was one of the most famous romances of the 19th century, yet it was not a happy one for the countess.
They first met in 1807, possibly at a ball at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Walewska wrote in her diary that Napoleon raped her during their first meeting, but she agreed to continue the relationship after pressure from the Polish aristocracy.
It was hoped that she could influence the emperor to support Poland in its struggle to regain independence from Prussia, Austria and Russian.
The affair was shrouded in secrecy, though Warsaw society was electrified by rumours of the liaison.
Walewska would be whisked into the city’s Royal Castle to spend the night with the Frenchman and would be secretly ushered out in the morning.
The relationship developed when she followed Napoleon to his field HQ at the Finckenstein Palace in West Prussia, now northern Poland.
Walewska was so ashamed of her status of live-in-lover that she did not leave the part of the building in which they lived, fearing being seen by officers surrounding Napoleon, many of whom were her acquaintances or relatives.
Walewska then followed Napoleon to Vienna, where she was installed in a house near his headquarters at the Schönbrunn Palace. It was there that she fell pregnant, eventually bearing Napoleon a son, Alexandre Joseph.
In 1810, Napoleon returned to Paris, where he was soon joined by Maria. The relationship was doomed, though, as he planned to divorce his wife Josephine and marry Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian Emperor. In the circumstances, carrying on an affair with another woman was highly inappropriate.
Despite the end of the affair, Napoleon made sure that Walewska was looked after. In addition to the gold necklace, he gave a large allowance of 120 000 francs, a free pass into all the imperial museums and extensive estates in the Kingdom of Naples.
Their child, Alexandre, went on to become a French politician and diplomat, holding the position of foreign minister in 1855-60.
When Walewska died just seven years later in Paris, the necklace was inherited by her family living in Britain, and was passed down generation by generation.
Despite an estimate of GBP 12,000, the jewellery was sold for just GBP 7,500 to a private collector from Australia.
George Champ, an auctioneer from C&T Auctions in the UK which handled the sale, told TFN that the price reflected the fact that Napoleon’s signature was not on the original sale document.
“It was sold by a European family who have had the necklace in their possession for around 130 years, so the provenance comes via the family,” he said.
“The price would have been much higher if Napoleon had signed the sale receipt, or if there was a painting, for example, with Maria Walewska wearing the necklace,” he added.
Champ underlined, however that the claim that the necklace was a birthing gift for Walewska rings true.
“The details of the necklace's original purchase fit the story, the place where it was bought, the sum paid for it, which is about GBP 15,000 in today's money,’ he said.