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Historic Jewellery

Historic jewellery : as the recent highlights of the market reveal, remarkable historic jewels are still coming to light. Collectors should be aware that many of the finest pieces are sold by dealers rather than at auction

Although connoisseurs have long been lamenting the dearth of genuine antique jewellery, a close look at the international art market over the past two years provides evidence that objects of quality from the renaissance to the First Empire do continue to come up for sale, either through private transactions or through the auction rooms.

Unfortunately, the authenticity of the sixteenth-century figurative jewels which are considered the summit of the goldsmith’s craft is difficult to establish, thanks to the number of nineteenth-century forgeries and revivalist versions. Hence the importance of a cameo portrait of Philip II (1527-98) in armour, inscribed with his name and title, which has survived in the original setting and was recently sold by D.S. Lavender, London. The frame is studded with eight table-cut diamonds, and the back is enamelled with a black trophy of arms alluding to Philip’s role as military leader of his people and champion of the Catholic cause against the forces of Protestantism. As might be expected from the greatest art patron of an art-loving century, the jewel perfectly embodies a calm, majestic ideal of sovereignty. Since the art of cameo cutting is such a difficult one, these hardstone royal images were regarded as the most prestigious of gifts, reserved either for a close relation of the monarch or a person of the greatest political importance. Philip II’s sister Done Juana of Austria is depicted with a jewel of this type on her funeral monument by Pompeo Leoni in the chapel of the Convent of Descalzas Reales, as is his daughter, the Infanta Clara Eugenia, in a portrait by Alonso Sanchez Coello of about 1580 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). This example would have been worn on a chain round the neck, proudly displayed like an order or badge of loyalty.