Renaissance Ring Identified as 'Lost' Marlborough Gem

18th July 2019

A Renaissance ring that has been identified as one of the Marlborough Gems has sold at auction for £77,500 after coming on the market for the first time for over century.

The Marlborough Gems were a collection of some 800 early cameo and intaglio jewels belonging to George Spencer, 4th Earl of Marlborough, which included the former collection of the Gonzagu Dukes of Mantua (acquired in the 17th century by Lord Arundel), and the 18th century collection of Lord Bessborough. The collection was sold at auction in 1875 by John Winston Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough in order to pay for repairs on the ancestral home of Blenheim Palace.

The collection was bought in its entirety by David Bromilow of Bitteswell Hall in Leicestershire, and was sold by his daughter with the rest of his own hardstone collection at auction in London in 1899. Currently, only about a quarter of the gems have been accounted for, and the presence of the rest is largely unknown; however, the Beazley Archive in Oxford contains drawings and descriptions of most of the gems, which were recreated in John Boardman et al’s extensive Oxford University book on the collection some ten years ago.

Initially thought to be a 19th century copy when consigned by the private Hampshire vendor, further research by Marielle Whiting of Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury revealed the ring’s true history. “There was something about the quality of the ring that made me push a bit further with it,” said Whiting, “and when I spotted it in the archive of the Marlborough Gems my heart nearly stopped beating!”

From the vendor’s family history, it seems likely that the ring was purchased from Francis E Whelan (a London dealer) by Mary Anna, 16th Viscountess Hereford (daughter of the 1st Baron Tredegar) and passed down the family following her death in 1924. Whelan is recorded as having purchased the ring (among other lots) at the Christie’s sale of the collection in 1899, meaning that the sale on 18th July was the first time it had been on the open market in 120 years.

Initial bidding in the room contested a commission bid, before a bank of 19 telephones took over and chased the price up to £62,000 hammer, with the ring being secured on the telephone by an anonymous buyer.

Head of Jewellery, Marielle Whiting, is delighted to have overseen a new phase in the ring’s history. “It’s amazing to be able to trace the provenance of an object right back to the 17th century, when it was in the Arundel Collection. The fate of so many of the Marlborough Gems is currently unknown, so to be able to identify another and preserve its history is really important.”

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