Nov 18, 2008
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US has Sun King's stolen gem, say French experts

Nov 18, 2008

PARIS, Nov 18, 2008 (AFP) - French experts said on Tuesday they had proof that the Hope Diamond, a star exhibit in Washington's Smithsonian Institution, is a legendary gem once owned by King Louis XIV that was looted in the French Revolution.

A picture taken in 2003 shows the 45.52 carat blue Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC
Photo : Paul J. Richards/AFP

New evidence unearthed in France's National Museum of Natural History shows beyond reasonable doubt that the Hope Diamond is the same steely-blue stone once sported by the Sun King, they said.

Mineralogist Francois Farges, heading an investigation published in a peer-reviewed French journal, told AFP he was now "99 percent sure" that the Hope and the mythical Blue Diamond of the Crown were one and the same.

"The evidence corroborates a scenario under which the diamond, after being stolen in Paris in 1792, was swiftly smuggled to London, where it was recut," he said.

The Blue Diamond came from a massive, 115.6-carat blue-tinged stone mined in the kingdom of Golconda, in India's Hyderabad state.

In the mid-17th century, a French adventurer by the name of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier purchased the stone from Golconda's ruler and then sold it on to Louis XIV.

The Sun King then ordered the court jeweller, Sieur Pitau, to make him a piece to remember.

After two years' work, Pitau presented his sovereign with a triangular-shaped 69-carat gem the size of a pigeon's egg that took the breath away as it snared the light, reflecting it back in bluish-grey rays.

At the diamond's dazzling heart was a Sun with seven facets -- the Sun being Louis' emblem, and seven being a number rich in meaning in biblical cosmology, indicating divinity and spirituality.

In 1749, Louis' descendant, Louis XV, had the Blue Diamond reworked as the centre piece of one of the most fabulous pieces of jewellery ever made, a ceremonial item called "The Order of the Golden Fleece."

It featured a 107-carat ruby carved into the shape of a dragon, which breathed out couvetous "flames," comprising 84 red-painted diamonds, in the direction of a fleece, consisting of 112 diamonds painted yellow.

After Louis XVI tried to flee revolutionary France, the French crown jewels were sequestered by the revolutionary regime and held in a mansion on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where they were stolen in a five-day spree by a gang in September 1792.

From then on, the Blue Diamond was never seen or heard of again.

But suspicions began to be aroused in 1812, when a massive blue stone of 45.54 carats was attributed to a London diamond merchant, Daniel Eliason.

Its next known owner was a British banker, Henry Philip Hope. The diamond showed up in his catalogue, but with no details of its provenance.

After Hope's death, the gem was bequeathed to his nephew and ultimately the nephew's grandson, who sold it to pay off debts. In the 20th century, it passed into American hands and eventually was donated by Harry Winston Inc. of New York to the Smithsonian in 1958.

In the study, appearing in the journal Revue de Gemmologie, Farges' team recount how, in December 2007, they found a lead model of the Blue Diamond in the archives of the National Museum of Natural History.

The model was made by a Paris jeweller, Charles Achard, whose clients included a "Mr. Hoppe of London."

Using measurements provided by the Smithsonian, the French team used a computer to see how the gems match up, and find that the Hope Diamond fits perfectly inside the Blue Diamond.

"It's more than a hypothesis," said Farges. "We have carried out analyses by scanner and laser, which have been validated by experts in gemology."

Looking at a paper trail of circumstantial evidence, including court testimony by some of the robbers, Farges believes that the gem -- far too conspicuous to be sold in Paris -- was smuggled out of France shortly after the theft.

It was taken to London where it was recut in what Farges describes as a butchered job, shearing the unique gem of 23.5 carats as well as its extraordinary lustre.

Eliason, he believes, was just a front for Hope. Eliason went public with ownership of the gem in September 1812, exactly two days after a 20-year statute of limitations for revolutionary crimes had expired.

On its website, the Smithsonian Institution says "strong evidence indicates" the Hope and Blue diamonds are the same stones.

Other scenarios for the Blue Diamond include the theory that revolutionary leader Georges Danton used it to buy off Austro-Prussian forces that were threatening the young republic.

It ended up in the hands of the British royal family through Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of George IV.

Farges dismissed this scenario as far-fetched and lacking any documented support.

Asked whether France would now ask for the diamond's return, Farges said this was unlikely.

"The diamond has been recut, which means that the one in Smithsonian is a completely different stone," he said.

"In addition, if someone were to ask me if I were 100-percent sure that this was the same diamond, I would be unable to say so, because the nature and chemical composition of the original blue diamond were never recorded."by Richard Ingham and Marie-Pierre Ferey

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