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Sotheby’s To Auction Diamonds Of Courtesan Who Became A Countess

Sotheby’s announced that to mark ten highly successful years of dedicated Noble Jewels sales in Geneva, it will offer at auction, the Donnersmarck Diamonds, a pair of extraordinary fancy intense yellow diamonds with impeccable aristocratic provenance.

The diamonds, formerly in the collection of the princely family of von Donnersmarck, consist of a cushion-shaped diamond weighing 102.54 carats, and a pear-shaped one weighing 82.47 carats. The stones will be offered as a single lot during Sotheby’s auction of Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels, to be held on November 15 at the Mandarin Oriental in Geneva. The pair is estimated at $9-$14 million (CHF 8,810,000 – CHF 13,700,000).

Sotheby’s International Jewellery Division Worldwide Chairman David Bennett, said, “These stunning diamonds carry with them a fascinating story, full of romance and determination over adversity, which could have inspired some of the greatest novels and operas, from Manon Lescaut to La Traviata. Ten years ago, they were the star of the show when we launched our very first sale dedicated to Noble Jewels here in Geneva.”

The diamonds were part of the collection of La Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck (1819-1884), arguably the most famous of 19th-century French courtesans, whose vertiginous trajectory from modest circumstances in her native Russia to the highest circles of European aristocracy was sensational.

Born Esther Lachman, she arrived in Paris aged 18 and was rapidly introduced to the city’s cultural and artistic circles by her lover, piano composer and pianist, Henri Herz. This relationship gained her the friendship of many artists, including Richard Wagner, Hans von Bülow, Théophile Gautier, and Emile de Girardin.

In the late 1840s, she met the Portuguese Marquis Albino Francisco de Araújo de Païva. They were married in 1851 but the marriage lasted only one day. Now known as La Païva, it was around this time that she met her future husband, Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck (1830-1916).

One of Europe’s richest men, the handsome and charismatic 22-year-old Prussian industrialist and mining magnate was immediately captivated by La Païva’s seductive charms, extraordinary mind and business acumen. Their relationship was the talk of Paris high society and in 1871, the two were married.

In 1855, shortly after they became a couple, La Païva purchased a building plot on the Champs Elysées. L’Hôtel de La Païva was to be one of the most lavish mansions ever built on the famous avenue. Among the building’s celebrated features is a central staircase made of Algerian yellow marble, which matched the yellow of the Donnersmarck diamonds. La Païva’s lavish parties and literary gatherings soon became the most talked-about events in Paris, often attended by the likes of Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, the artist Eugène Delacroix and even the Emperor himself.

La Païva’s love of fine jewels is legendary, and she had already acquired some fabulous jewels even before her marriage. Her new husband saw to it that her collection was without equal. Following La Païva’s death in 1884, the Count, who was created prince in 1901, remarried, taking as his second wife, Katharina Wassilievna de Slepzoff (1862-1929) a beautiful and refined Russian aristocrat. The diamonds remained in the Donnersmarck family for more than a century until they appeared at auction at Sotheby’s in 2007. They come to auction this November after having been in a private collection for the last 10 years.

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