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BEVIS HILLIER

A Former-King's Ransom : Almost a Year After the Duchess of Windsor's Death, Sotheby's Prepares to Auction Her Jewelry

February 22, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER

So far, history has not been too tender with the reputations of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson). She has been represented as a scheming double-divorcee who thought that by marrying Edward she could become Queen of England. And evidence has come to light that the duke was on far too friendly terms with Adolf Hitler.

But when the smears have been wiped away, the Windsors' romance must still count as one of the grand love affairs of the century. Few men have a throne to give up as proof of their devotion. And the marriage lasted.

Wallis Simpson may not have become queen, but Edward, in his infatuation with her, gave her a king's ransom in jewelry. "Her collection of jewels is the talk of London," socialite Sir Henry Channon wrote in his diary in 1936. "The king must give her new jewels every day. . . . He worships her. . . . The king is insane about Wallis, insane. . . . Cartier's are resetting magnificent, indeed fabulous, jewels for Wallis, and for what purpose if she is not to be queen?"

Some of the duchess's jewels were stolen in 1946 when she and the duke were taking tea at Lord Dudley's house in Sunningdale, near Windsor Castle. None of the pieces were recovered. The theft gave rise to a series of fantastic allegations. The most scandalous rumor (reported by Suzy Menkes in her book "Royal Jewels") was that the British Royal Family had itself masterminded the crime to get back Queen Alexandra's emeralds, which had been given to the Danish princess on her marriage to Edward's grandfather, King Edward VII.

The jewels that remained after the theft were still spectacular, and more were bought over the years. The duke's equerry, Dudley Forwood, has described the duchess in later life as "blazing with rings, earrings, brooches, bracelets and necklaces and almost stooping under their weight."

On April 2 and 3--almost a year after the duchess's death--Sotheby's in Geneva is to sell her jewelry. The sale will include 87 pieces by Cartier of Paris, the firm that was sort of "court jeweler" to the Windsors; and 23 pieces by Van Cleef & Arpels. One diamond ring is expected to bring more than $750,000, and a sapphire-and-diamond bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels, given to Wallis Simpson two weeks before her marriage to the duke, may fetch $450,000. The bracelet is engraved: "For our contract," and dated May 18, 1937.

The duchess's engagement ring, a large emerald mounted in gold with small diamonds on the shoulders, was remounted by Cartier in 1958. But in going through the collection, Sotheby's staff found the original plain-gold mount, with baguette diamonds at the shoulders, engraved "We are ours now" and dated Oct. 27, 1936.

"That emerald has an interesting story," says John Culme, the Sotheby director in charge of the sale. "During the 1920s one of Cartier's people went to Baghdad to see a collection of gems. He sent back a messenger to say that he needed a very large sum of money. The Cartier's people got very excited and sent out the money. But when the representative came back, all he brought was a small pouch, and out of it tumbled onto the desk at Cartier a very large and almost unsalable emerald.

"His boss said: 'You must be mad. We can't sell this sort of thing now that the Russian aristocracy has gone.'

"The representative said: 'Don't worry, I've been thinking about it. We'll divide the emerald in half and re-cut it.'

"And that is what they did. One half went to an American millionaire--I don't know where it is today. The other half was sold to King Edward VIII."

A charm bracelet (expected to realize $18,000) is hung with nine gold and jewel-studded crosses, including one engraved "Our Marriage Cross Wallis" and dated June 3, 1937--the date of the Windsors' wedding. Many of the other crosses on the bracelet are engraved--in tiny facsimiles of Edward's handwriting--with puns, such as "WE," which stood for "Wallis and Edward," for the royal "we" and for the couple's unity in love.

Another of the crosses is engraved "The King's Cross." Culme explains the joke: "There was a story going round London that Wallis Simpson had gone to Scotland. She was in a hurry, so she jumped in a taxi and said "King's Cross" (the name of the London railroad station from which one leaves for Scotland). The taxi driver said: "I'm very sorry to hear it, madam."

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