There's nothing like a ring to capture the romantic imagination. Circling the finger, catching the light with every gesture, symbolizing love and fidelity – little wonder that rings often become a part of the wearer in a way no other piece of jewelry can. And little wonder, too, that the rings worn by famous people of the past have a special magic. Remember the bidding frenzy surrounding the auction of Jane Austen's ring last summer?
This week another very special ring in history came up for sale, and this one, too, sold for far more than the original estimates. The elegant gold band, left, was the ring that Napoleon Bonaparte gave to Rose Tascher de la Pagerie de Beauharnais – later known simply as Josephine – to show his love and seal their engagement. They were married on March 9, 1796.
At the time of the time of the engagement, Napoleon was a young officer of 26, full of promise and ambition, while she was 32, the wealthy, fashionable widow of an aristocrat who had died on the guillotine. The attraction between the two had been instant. Wrote Napoleon in his memoirs many years later:
Everyone knows the extreme grace of the Empress Josephine and her sweet and attractive manners. The acquaintance soon became intimate and tender, and it was not long before we married.
As is often the case with young men desperately in love, Napoleon likely spent more than was prudent on the ring for his bride. Two tear-shaped stones - a diamond and a sapphire - are placed in a gold setting that was sentimentally called toi et moi (you and me) in the 18th century. Each gemstone weighs just under a carat each.
While in time the marriage faltered and Napoleon went on to marry a second time for the sake of a male heir, Josephine always treasured the ring, and gave it to her daughter. The ring remained in the family until the present sale, scheduled on March 24 to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Josephine's birth.
So what was the price for the ring that symbolized the union of two of the most famous lovers in history? The Osenat auction house in Fontainebleau had predicted the bidding would reach $20,000. But by the day of the sale, there were more than fifty bidders from around the world interested in the ring, bidding by phone and internet as well as those seated in the auction room. The winning bid by an anonymous bidder was an astounding $949,000; adding the buyer's 25 percent commission to the auction house, the final price was $1.17 million.
Top left: Diamond & sapphire engagement ring belonging to Josephine Bonaparte, late 18th c. Osenat auction house. Lower right: Study of Josephine Bonaparte, by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, c, 1805. Louvre Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.