Romanov jewels smuggled out of Russia during 1917 Revolution to headline Sotheby’s Geneva jewellery sales

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A sapphire and diamond brooch and matching ear clips, smuggled out of Russia for safekeeping during the 1917 revolution, will star in Sotheby’s Geneva auction of Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels on November 10, 2021, with an estimate of $300,000-500,000.

They had once belonged to the formidable aunt of Emperor Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1854-1920) who entrusted her friend, the British antiques dealer and aristocrat Albert Henry Stopford (1860-1939) with their safe passage to London.

Romanov jewels smuggled out of Russia during 1917 Revolution to headline Sotheby’s Geneva jewellery sales

Historically Important Ceylon sapphire and diamond brooch and a pair ear clips, circa 1900

300,000 USD – 500,000 USD / 280,000 CHF – 465,000 CHF 

A brooch of plaque design, set at the centre with an oval sapphire weighing 26.80 carats, the border set with cushion-shaped and rose diamonds.

Maker’s marks for Sophia Schwan, probably for Bolin, St Petersburg, 1899-1908 and Russian assay marks. The Bolin family firm can trace its origins in St. Petersburg to 1791 and served several Russian sovereigns.

A pair of ear clips en suite, set with step-cut sapphires weighing 6.69 and 9.36 carats respectively, within a border of rose-cut and cushion-shaped diamonds.

Picture credit: Sotheby’s

Olivier Wagner, Head of Sale, said: “We rarely come across jewellery with a more storied provenance than these stunning sapphire and diamond pieces. Theirs is a truly remarkable survival, having made their way from one of the Romanov palaces, out of revolutionary Russia, across war-torn Europe and into the vaults of a London bank. Often referred to as ‘The Queen of St Petersburg’, the Grand Duchess was by all accounts a glittering figure who fought to hold on to the trimmings of splendour during the revolution. Here we get a glimpse into her long-forgotten jewellery box, bravely spirited out of Russia by one of her closest friends.”

Albert Stopford, who was at the time, aged 55 and so not eligible for war service, was very much part of the social scene in St Petersburg (then Petrograd), seeing the Grand Duchess Vladimir almost every day when they were both in the city. He was also in constant touch with the British Ambassador and the embassy staff, passing back information and acting as a semi-official courier on his journeys between Petrograd and London, allowing him a certain level of diplomatic immunity.

Sotheby's

Picture credit: Sotheby’s

Dressed in workman’s clothes, Stopford was sent to secretly collect the jewels from the Grand Duchess’s home, the as yet un-pillaged 360-room Vladimir Palace on the prestigious Neva embankment. Let in through a side door by Maria Pavlovna’s eldest son Boris and a trusted servant, he dismantled the jewels, folding the pieces into old newspaper to protect them, and set out for a train journey of three nights to the spa town of Ki slovodsk in the Caucasus, where Maria Pavlovna had retreated to her summer villa.

This would be the last visit he paid her before setting out for London on 26th September 1917 carrying 244 pieces of Maria Pavlovna’s jewels in a Gladstone bag, including the sapphire brooch and earrings offered here, as well as The Vladimir Tiara (now owned by Queen Elizabeth II). The anxious 10-day journey culminated in a passage across the North Sea, which was heavily mined by this stage in the war. However, he arrived safely at Aberdeen on 6th October and professed himself “delighted to see policemen again”. From there, he travelled to London where the jewels were safely deposited in a bank.

It was to be another two years before the Grand Duchess was to reach Europe herself. She reluctantly made her own plans to leave Russia in the autumn of 1919, travelling 800 kilometres through a war-torn country to the Black Sea. Despite the deteriorating situation and bad weather, she reportedly set off in style for the 50-mile journey to the nearest railway station in an open carriage with her maid of honour at her side.

Despite the advancing Bolshevik army, the Grand Duchess, acting very much in character, is said to have refused passage on an earlier ship which required a change at Istanbul as she could have had to submit to the ignominy of being de­loused. Instead, she obtained a later passage in February 1920 and within a month of her departure Novorossiysk fell to the Bolsheviks. She travelled to Venice, Switzerland and finally Paris in July.

Sadly, her health had been severely affected by the ordeal of the previous four years and only a few months after her arrival she died on 6th September. Her tomb is in the Russian Orthodox church Contrexeville in north eastern France which she had had built in memory of her husband in 1909.

The jewels were passed to her daughter, Princess Elena of Greece and Denmark (1882-1957) and then down through the family by descent until their auction at Sotheby’s in Geneva on 17 November 2009, where they were acquired by another European Princely family.