Today marks the 80th Anniversary of the Death of Infanta Maria Theresa, Archduchess Karl Ludwig of Austria, who passed away on this day in 1944! The daughter of the exiled Portuguese King who married the brother of the Austrian Emperor, we have already covered the Infanta’s Habsburg Fringe Tiara, but today we are featuring the legendary Napoléon Diamond Necklace!
Created by the celebrated Parisian jeweller Marie-Étienne Nitot in 1811, the Diamond Necklace is composed of twenty-eight mine-cut diamonds, from which is suspended a fringe of alternating pendeloque-cut and briolette-cut diamonds, bringing the total number of diamonds mounted in the necklace to 234. The bill for the necklace amounted to 376,275 Francs of the time, higher than the Empress’ yearly household budget.
Emperor Napoléon commissioned this spectacular Necklace for Empress Marie Louise on the birth of their son, Napoléon II, and the Empress was depicted wearing it in numerous portraits.
Following Napoléon’s exile and the end of the French First Empire, the Diamond Necklace remained the personal property of Empress Marie Louise, who became the Sovereign Duchess of Parma and was depicted wearing the Necklace by Giovan Battista Borghesi around 1835, among a series of assocaited depictions.
Following Empress Marie Louise’s death in 1847, her Diamond Scroll Tiara and Topaz Parure were inherited by a cousin, but the Napoléon Diamond Necklace was left to her sister-in-law, Archduchess Sophie of Austria, who removed two diamonds to create a pair of earrings, before it was eventually inherited by her younger son, Archduke Karl Ludwig, in 1872.
The following year, Archduke Karl Ludwig married, as his third wife, Infanta Maria Theresa of Portugal, who was the sister-in-laws of Emperor Franz Joseph I, and one of the leading Ladies of the Imperial Court after the retirement and later assassination of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The couple represented Austria at the Coronation of Tsar Alexander III in 1883, where Infanta Maria Theresa caused such a stir wearing the Napoléon Diamond Necklace that the Tsar requested it be displayed under guard to guests for several hours each day for the following week.
The Napoléon Diamond Necklace was also worn by Infanta Maria Theresa with the Habsburg Fringe Tiara for the wedding of her daughter, Archduchess Elisabeth, to Prince Alois of Liechtenstein in 1903, and retained in her possession after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1929, during the Great Depression, Infanta Maria Theresa decided to sell the Napoléon Diamond Necklace to aid her financial situation, and after two failed attempts, she engaged two people presenting themselves as Colonel Townsend of the British Secret Service and Princess Gervez Baronti, daughter of Prince Baronti of Italy, to sell the necklace on commission in the United States, along with the Infanta’s destitute nephew, Archduke Leopold, promising her that the necklace would fetch at least US$450,000.
There is little evidence that the pair attempted to reach that asking price; after failed negotiations with the jeweler Harry Winston, an attorney named Harry Berenson, and the socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, the pair eventually sold the necklace to David Michel, a gem dealer in New York City, for $60,000. From that price, the pair claimed $52,730 as expenses, remitting only $7,270 of the promised $450,000 back to Maria Theresa.
When informed of the sale, Maria Theresa gave power of attorney to her friend Anna Eisenmenger, wife of Victor Eisenmenger, and enlisted her help in retrieving her property. Eisenmenger approached Michel, who eventually agreed to return the necklace for $50,000, taking a personal loss of $10,000 from the sale. She also sought legal redress on Maria Theresa’s behalf. Soon after, Thomas C. T. Crain, the New York County District Attorney announced that the Townsends were sought on counts of grand larceny. The scandal reached the New York Times on March 1, 1930, along with initial reports that the Townsends had removed several stones from the necklace to sell separately. These turned out to be false, but the pair fled the country and were never caught. “Princess Baronti” wrote in her self-published 1935 autobiography that the two of them passed through Chicago and then to England before separating, with Townsend planning to move to Japan and Baronti herself travelling to India until the scandal passed.
Archduke Leopold was brought up charges of aiding and abetting the theft itself, and a separate charge of grand larceny for theft of the proceeds, having accepted $20,000 from the Townsends as payment for his character reference. Leopold voluntarily turned himself in and spent twelve days in The Tombs, a detention complex in Manhattan, before a neighbour posted his bail bond. He was eventually acquitted of the first charge, and had his conviction on the second count vacated.
The Napoléon Diamond Necklace was returned to Infanta Maria Theresa and remained in he repossession until her death in 1944, being was inherited by the aforementioned Archduchess Elisabeth along with the Habsburg Fringe Tiara. While the Tiara remains an important heirloom of the Princely Family, the Necklace was sold in 1949 to French industrialist Paul-Louis Weiller, who sold it in 1960 to Harry Winston.
Later that year, the Necklace was bought by Marjorie Merriweather Post, who donated it two years later to the Smithsonian Institution, where it has since remained on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., along side Empress Marie Louise’s Emerald Tiara.