Jewellery smuggled out of Russia amid 1917 revolution to go on sale

Smuggled out of Russia by a British antiques dealer in a daring raid during the turmoil of the 1917 revolution, there was no guarantee it would ever be seen again.

The large sapphire and diamond brooch, pictured above, was among 244 pieces of jewellery hidden in two shabby Gladstone bags. Another part of the haul was the Vladimir tiara which now belongs to the Queen.

Marking the next step in their eventful journey, the oval brooch along with matching ear clips, once owned by the formidable Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (the elder), aunt of the last Tsar Nicholas II, will next week go up for auction by Sotheby’s.

The royal set is being sold by an unidentified European royal family and is expected to fetch up to £400,000.

The tale behind the jewellery and how it came to be deposited in a London bank is one of astonishing derring-do.

The Vladimir Tiara

Credit: Getty

The Queen wears the Vladimir Tiara at Claridge's in London in 1972

Credit: Hulton Royals Collection

Vicar’s son from Titchmarsh trusted with precious collection 

The Grand Duchess, wife of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, was said to have enjoyed a great passion for jewels.

She entrusted Bertie Stopford, a vicar’s son from Titchmarsh, Northamptonshire, with the task of spiriting her precious collection out of the Vladimir Palace in Petrograd as she hid in the war-torn Caucasus, hoping that her eldest son would become Tsar.

The jewels were stored in a safe in her Moorish style suite of rooms and Stopford, disguised in workman’s clothes, got inside with the cooperation of her eldest son Boris, who let him in through a side door. 

Having accessed the safe, he carefully dismantled the jewels, folding the pieces into old newspaper to protect them before packing them in two Gladstone bags.

Stopford, then 55, a great friend of the Romanovs, took a three-night train journey to Kislovodsk in Caucasus where the Grand Duchess had a house, handing over the cash he had also procured from the safe and smuggled out in his boots. 

He then set off for London with the jewels. 

British antiques dealer was on ‘very familiar terms’ with Grand Duchess 

Stopford, who published his diary and letters anonymously in 1919, had been on “very familiar terms” with the Grand Duchess Vladimir, seeing her almost every day when both were in Petrograd. 

Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia

Credit: Hulton Archive

He was also in constant touch with the British ambassador and embassy staff, acting as a semi official courier by passing information and confidential letters on his journeys between the UK and Russia.

He was effectively carrying their diplomatic bags, although he insisted only “as a matter of courtesy and not in an official capacity”.

Nerve-wracking ten day journey

Stopford left Petrograd on September 26, 1917 carrying Maria Pavlovna’s extraordinary jewellery collection, for a nerve-wracking ten day journey.

He travelled by train through Finland, which was in Russian hands, and into Sweden before arriving in Aberdeen by boat on October 6, where he professed himself “delighted to see policemen again”.

Meanwhile, the Grand Duchess made arrangements for the cigarette boxes and cufflinks in the Vladimir Palace to be retrieved and taken to Swedish embassy staff before plotting her own escape from Russia, eventually landing in Paris. She was one of the last Romanovs to escape revolutionary Russia.

On arrival in London, Stopford put the jewels in a bank’s safety deposit box where they remained for at least two years.

When the Grand Duchess reached Europe, it was agreed that the valuables should be taken to Cartier in Paris to be valued.

However, in September 1920, the Grand Duchess died and the jewels were eventually divided between her descendants.

Vladimir tiara sold to Queen Mary for £28,000

Among the pieces in the collection was a grand diamond tiara with removable pearl drops that was originally made in 1874 by Bolin, the Russian court jeweller, for the royal.

It was inherited by her daughter, Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna, who sold it to Queen Mary, the Queen’s grandmother, in 1921 for £28,000. 

It has been in the royal collection ever since and has been worn frequently by the Queen, both with and without the pearl drops – or with emerald drops, which were an addition commissioned by Queen Mary.

The brooch and earrings will form part of Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale in Geneva.

A sapphire and diamond tiara, mid 19th century from a European Princely Family to be sold as part of Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale in Geneva

Olivier Wagner, head of sale, said: “We rarely come across jewellery with a more storied provenance than these stunning sapphire and diamond pieces. Theirs is a truly remarkable survival, having made their way from one of the Romanov palaces, out of revolutionary Russia, across war- torn Europe and into the vaults of a London bank. 

“Often referred to as ‘The Queen of St Petersburg’, the Grand Duchess was by all accounts a glittering figure who fought to hold on to the trimmings of splendour during the revolution. Here we get a glimpse into her long-forgotten jewellery box, bravely spirited out of Russia by one of her closest friends.”

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