French Revolution,  Paris,  Podcast

PGB 3: L’Hotel de la Marine and the Theft of the Crown Jewels!

L’Hotel de la Marine, the museum on the Place de la Concorde, has witnessed many events over the years—including the theft of the Crown Jewels in 1792! What was stolen? Who did it? Did they get away with it?

The History of L’Hotel

The Place de la Concorde, originally place Louis XV, was created to showcase a very impressive statue of the man himself, King Louis XV. The city of Paris was “gifting” the statue to Louis in part to give him a statue as grand as those of his forebears. Henry IV (pont Neuf), Louis XIII (place des Vosges), and Louis XIV (place des Victoires) each already had commemorative statues to their awesomeness (all were all destroyed during the Revolution). While Louis XV was perhaps not quite as awesome as The Sun King or the Vert Galant, he was still king, in what was essentially an absolute monarchy. The leaders of Paris knew on which side their bread was buttered!

After searching around for an appropriate spot in the city, Louis arranged to provide some of his own property to the venture. The area at the west end of the jardin des Tuileries, before the start of the Champs-Élysées was mostly an open space. This solved the biggest problem: the financial cost of buying out property owners to create a suitably large square. Some sources imply that the spot was a bit marshy. Was Louis also hoping to resolve that issue as well? Regardless, the spot was chosen. Now to spiff it up a bit!

Future home of the Garde-Meuble / l’Hotel de la Marine, from about 1739

The Royal Repository

In addition to the statue, some water features, and a large open square, it was decided that the site needed some architectural oomph. After an open call for designs, Louis opted to go with his official architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel. The plan was for two generally identical buildings, side by side, to form the northern border of the square. They would have excellent views of the statue, garden, river, and what was the still-wooded Champs-Élysées. In the end, they also afforded excellent views of the beheading of the future king and queen, along with thousands of others.

Construction

Unusual for our time but common historically, only the facades of the two buildings were designed and completed by Gabriel. It was then up to the new owner(s) to build out the actual interior spaces, though I assume some limitations were in place to maintain a pleasing uniformity of design. In short order the rest of the block behind the buildings was also designed and built out to what is now rue St. Honoré/rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The space between that block and what was slowly becoming the new L’Eglise de la Madeleine, was developed (or rather re-developed) more slowly, thanks to revolving architects and that pesky revolution problem.

The square and our buildings, from the river in 1784. Paris before embankments!

The Buildings

The building to the left (west) was split into four lots, that were originally sold to the elite members of society. Now they house, from west to east, the famous luxury Hôtel de Crillon, the Automobile Club of France (in the middle two lots), and the one facing the rue Royal is a private residence!

Our building on the right (east) was originally meant to be partially for the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne (or the Royal Furniture Repository) and the rest available to let by the crown. But then the government (maybe after taking an inventory?) decided to commit the whole building to housing the royal goods.

The collection must have been vast—it supplied all of the Paris-area royal chateaux, including Versailles, Compiègne, Fontainebleau, Marly, Choisy, Trianon, Rambouillet, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Montreuil. This also implies that there were other repositories in other areas of France. But perhaps only in areas with multiple chateaux, like the Loire? If you know more, let us know in the comments!

Our building now. Such a beauty!

Under the direction of the first intendent or steward of this iteration of the collection, parts of the collection were on public display once a week. This included the crown jewels, a selection of furnishings, and one of arms and armor. It became the first decorative arts museum in France, pre-dating even the Louvre!

But all this development and displayed wealth were a different type of façade. All was not well in France. Revolution was in the air…

Cannons and Crown Jewels

The French Revolution would bring rapid and lasting change to Paris, including the royal repository and its contents.

Cannons First!

On July 13, 1789, the day before the storming of the Bastille, the putative revolutionaries started collecting the necessary weapons. Where to go when you need arms and armor? To the place where they are publicly displayed, of course! After arriving at the Garde-Meuble, the mob took off with all of the weaponry they could grab. This included, supposedly, several intricately decorated cannon given to Louis XIV by the King of Siam. They were also supposedly used in the opening salvo against the Bastille the next day. There is no hard proof of this, but I do enjoy that irony!

However, the highly decorated ceremonial weapons were apparently considered insufficient. The much more practical weapons held at Les Invalides were ransacked the next day before the attack on the Bastille. It’s best to be well-prepared when fomenting revolution.

The theft of the arms and armor, including at least one cannon.

Chaos Reigns

Fast forward a few years. It is now 1792 and things are getting heated. The royal collection has stayed in place and is now bearing witness to the executions of that bloody period. Some of the goods have been sold off or destroyed for their valuable metals yet it remains largely intact.

But chaos is in full reign and the accusations are flying. The year before, an inventory had been taken of the Garde-Meuble. While the crown jewels all seemed accounted for, the gold stash seemed a little light. The current intendent, Thierry de Ville-d’Avray, was put under watch. The following August of 1792, he’s arrested at last and sent to the Abbey prison. He is promptly caught up in the September Massacres and is among the slaughtered.

The Theft of the Millenium

In the aftermath of the massacres and with the Prussian army bearing down on the city, social order had basically collapsed. There weren’t enough guards to go around, including for the repository, despite the pleas of the current director of the Garde-Meuble. Enter a group of thieves, led by Paul Miette, who break into the building and start helping themselves!

They climbed up the façade, broke a pane of glass on the first floor (second floor American), removed part of the shutters, and let themselves in. They then proceeded to plunder the jewel collection for several days. On the night of September 16th, a passing group of national guards heard the commotion—the thieves had taken to partying—and the jig was up. But not before nearly the entire crown jewel collection had been removed.

Eventually, a large portion of the jewels were recovered, including several important gems such as the Regent, the Sancy and the Hortensia. However, the French Blue, Louis XIV’s gigantic blue diamond was never recovered. It would eventually turn up, cut down a bit, as the Hope Diamond twenty years later. This very valuable gem now lives at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

The French Blue in its last known setting:  King Louis XV’s Golden Fleece of the Colored Adornment.

Who Did It?

The fact that the crown jewels were stolen during the chaos of the Revolution isn’t surprising in itself. There are always opportunists at such times. But what makes the story so fascinating are the details:

  • The theft occurred over multiple nights.
  • The guards on duty somehow missed this fact. Repeatedly.
  • Even when caught, no one ran after the fleeing thieves immediately.
  • Some of the thieves, including the leader Paul Miette, were either released or given light sentences. However, some of the smaller players were executed, basically at the scene of the crime, by guillotine.
  • Most of the jewels were recovered relatively quickly and largely in or near France.

These details have created a large number of conspiracy theories, naturally! Some of the more popular:

To Win the Battle

The first theory has Revolutionary Leader/Minister of Justice Georges Danton as the mastermind. He arranged to have the jewels stolen, most likely to bribe the Prussian Duke of Brunswick to lose at the Battle of Valmy and retreat from France. The timing of the thefts a few days before the battle, the unexpected Prussian loss, and the fact that the French Blue showed up in London twenty years later (where the Duke’s daughter was now Queen of England) all support this theory. However, the actual events of the battle, the Duke’s impressive wealth, and the standard code of honor for the aristocracy at the time contradict it.

Personally, I think the bribery theory doesn’t work. But stealing the jewels to pawn for cash for the government does sound more plausible. It would be hard to sit on all that wealth and not think of using it!

Opportunity Knocks

There are several versions of the “the opportunity was there, so I took it” theory. The first is that Miette, who was already a convicted criminal, and his friends decided to take advantage of the chaos to commit the crime. The second is that the new director, Jean-Bernard Restout, who had replaced the recently ousted intendent, was the culprit. Maybe he decided that the government didn’t seem to care about the crown jewels since they weren’t sending more guards. He would then just help himself. The jewel cases in the room supposedly showed no signs of forced entry. Did someone have a key?

Then there is the more elaborate version, based on some documentation that indicates that at least part of the jewel collection had been moved around prior to August 1792. Intendent de Ville-d’Avray was found to have put perhaps 75% of the jewels into boxes before his arrest. It is unknown if this was meant to be for safekeeping or nefarious purposes. After de Ville-d’Avray’s arrest, his brother-in-law, (and possible informant against him?) Alexandre Lemoine-Crécy handed the boxes over to the Minister of the Interior Roland, and the new director Restout.

Thierry de Ville d’Avray. Gold Thief? Jewel Thief? Unwitting Victim?

Roland and Restout certified that the boxes were supposedly unopened and sealed during their entire journey back to the Garde-Meuble. But is that true? Did someone in the chain take the risk to remove a jewel or ten? Were they all in on it together? Or is this a weird case of round robin? As stated in the episode, none of them seem to have gained anything by the possible pilfering, so it feels unlikely.

The Long Shots

There were two other theories that don’t quite add up. One is that the British had a hand in it, though to what end is unclear. This is possibly based upon the Hope diamond story, but it doesn’t work for me. I think this one is about as real as the Scarlet Pimpernel—who I do hope was involved! 😉

Sink me! It wasn’t I who took the jewels!

Another improbable option is that Marie Antoinette, from her prison cell (in The Temple prison, before her final stay at the Conciergerie), managed to conspire to have the jewels stolen. This is exceedingly unlikely, given that her family had just been installed in the Temple a few weeks before. An elaborate plot to liberate the jewels was probably not her top priority, even if such a plot could be hatched undetected.

Which of these do you think is most plausible? Could it be a combination of plots? Miette taking advantage of a situation and stealing what the intendent or the director hadn’t already pilfered? It is one of history’s mysteries!

A quick list of resources for these theories is found at the end of the show notes.

Ahoy!

After the king and his government fell to the revolutionaries in the summer and fall of 1789, a new home had to be found for all of the government departments. Versailles was no longer open for business. The Hôtel du Garde-Meuble was allocated to the Navy, though they did not actually formally move in for almost another decade.

It was at this point that the building became known as L’Hotel de la Marine, the name that it retains today. The French Navy was headquartered here until 2015, well over 100 years! It’s new home is Hexegone Balard (in the 15th arr.), the combined HQ for all the military branches and the Ministry of Defense.

The Navy’s new digs

One of the most significant events in the building during the Navy’s tenure was the signing of the decree abolishing slavery in France and all her territories. The desk it was signed on is still on display, in the Salon Diplomatique in the new museum. In recognition of this event, the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery is housed in one of the non-public spaces in the museum site.

Now

As the Navy’s move to Hexagone Balard was planned, the state had to figure out what to do with the building. There seems to have been some possibility of it being put up for sale before public outcry forced them to reconsider. The Louvre and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN) were both up to bat, until the Louvre decided to focus on it’s own on-site projects, according to Le Monde. The CMN then was given full control of the building. They oversaw the creation of the museum spaces, restaurants, gift shop, and the non-public spaces such as those used by the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery. After a long time under scaffolding, the museum finally opened in 2021!

What Happened To The Stuff?

But what happened to all of the goods in the Royal Repository? After the official repository was finally closed in under the Directoire, Napoleon, as First Consul and professional collector of stuff, re-founded it in 1800. This would help with the extensive construction works at his many palaces. A new empire needs new stuff. Or at least old stuff refurbished to new tastes!

In 1870, after a few regime changes, the collection was renamed Mobilier National. Their collection and responsibility also includes such heritage manufacturers as Sevres porcelain and Gobelins tapestries. For the truly curious, here is a video showing off some of the treasures of the Mobilier National [in French].

And the crown jewels? Incredibly, they were largely sold off by the Third Republic in 1887! The jewels were seen as a threat to the republic, an unwanted to connection to monarchy and the monarchists who violently wanted to overthrow the unstable government. Interestingly, the American firm Tiffany & Co were the most successful bidders, raking in about a third of the available jewels.

A selection of the jewels sold in 1887. To have a time machine and a pile of francs…

The Museum

So what is in the museum, other than the abolition desk and the gift shop? There are three main spaces:

  1. A set of private apartments, decorated in the late Louis XV and XVI/pre-revolution style
  2. A set off similarly restored public spaces, including the Salon Diplomatique
  3. And, unrelated to the building’s history, the Al Thani collection. This is the personal collection of Qatari Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thani. The collection contains artifacts spanning thousands of years and is managed by a foundation that also focuses on exhibits, publications, and lectures. After several temporary exhibits at such notable museums as the Met in New York and V&A in London, it is making Paris its home for at least the next 20 years

How to See the Museum

If you want to visit L’Hotel de la Marine, you have a few options to choose from:

You can take the Grand Tour. This is the full-meal deal with the private apartments and public spaces
You can take the shorter, cheaper Salons and Loggias Tour. This grants you access only to the public spaces (no apartments).

Both tours include access to the Al Thani collection and an audio guide they’ve named “The Confidante.”

Options

As of April 2022, the Grand Tour comes in three options: original, family, and one focused on the Age of Enlightenment. The short tour is only available in original or family.

The museum is covered under the Paris Museum Pass but it seems that the pass only covers the shorter Salons and Loggias tour. You’ll need to pay full price for the longer visit. A reservation is recommended and may be required at the time you go. Be sure to check the website when planning your visit! For a sneak peak of the museum, check out their Instagram.

If you want to see what’s left of the crown jewels, they are in the Louvre. Your visit is also covered by the museum pass and requires a timed entry. Can’t make it there soon enough? Check out part of the collection here.

Additional portions of the former Crown Jewels can be seen at the Natural History Museum. These seem to be mostly removed from their original settings.

Before We Storm the Castle

Before we grab overly-ornate and probably useless cannon or take our chances with the crown jewels, let me know your thoughts on the heist, the museum, or the episode itself!

Personally, I can’t wait to see the museum. The 18th-century and especially the decorative arts of the period are my jam. It will be amazing to see spaces that are on a more human scale than Versailles! And did I mention that gift shop? ;D

Merci et À bientôt! 

M


Conspiracy Theory Resources:
Article from the Museum
Blog Article from Rodama1789 [in French]
Blog Article from ZigZag Paris [in French]
French Wikipedia Article [in French]


Image Credits

1739 Map Excerpt. Plan de Turgot, 1739. (Composite) Turgot, Michel-Etienne ; Bretez, Louis ; Lucas, Claude. From the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.
1784 Paris Excerpt. [Place Louis XV et terrasse des Tuileries]. Watercolor. 1784. Demachy, Pierre-Antoine (1723-1807). Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE FT 6-VE-53 (J).
L’Hotel de la Marine Now. “Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, designed by the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel” taken 14 Sept 2011. Posted to Wikimedia Commons by Moonik, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The Theft of the Arms & Armor. Jean-Louis Prieur (le jeune) (1759-1795). “Pillage des armes au garde-meuble, place Louis XV, le 13 juillet 1789“. Paris, musée Carnavalet.
French Blue & the Golden Fleece: King Louis XV’s Golden Fleece of the Colored Adornment” Modern gouache of the piece by Pascal Monney, Geneva, Available on ResearchGate.
Portrait of Thierry de Ville d’Avray. “Marc Antoine Thierry baron de Ville d Avray (1732-1792) par Roslin” Held by the Palace of Versailles. Photo posted to Wikimedia Commons by Heleashard. Public Domain “published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1927 and public domain in the U.S.”
Scarlet Pimpernel. Anthony Andrews in the 1982 Production. Pinterest. PIN 422071796301937059.
Hexagone Balard. “Hexagone-Balard @ Paris” taken 19 Dec 2015. Posted to Wikimedia Commons by Guilhem Vellut. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Jewels for Sale. From L’Illustration, Avril 1887, pg 277. Tome [volume] 89 (Jan – Jun 1887), on Google Books.


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