The origins of the ruby Buddha start with an enormous rough Burmese ruby left to the skilled hands of a Chinese artist during the Ming dynasty in 15th-century China. Exquisitely carved into a statuette of a Buddha standing roughly five inches tall, this important piece resided in the Summer Palace in Beijing until 1860. After more than four centuries, the statuette’s quiet existence was suddenly shaken with scandal: it was taken by the British who had invaded the city and looted the palace during the Second Opium War. From that date on, the story of the Buddha grows richer with its next guardian, a flamboyant Russian Prince.
The 70-plus-carat Burmese ruby Buddha eventually fell into the hands of Prince Felix Yusupov, the son of the immensely wealthy Princess Zenaide Yusupova. At one time the richest man in Russia, Yusupov’s fortune was acquired through extensive land grants in Siberia from generations earlier as well as his family’s ownership of several profitable mines and fur trading posts. With a fortune beyond comprehension, Yusupov owned a seemingly endless string of magnificent properties, including the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg and an Empire-style chateau at Arkhangelskoe on the outskirts of Moscow.
Sharing these luxuries with Yusupov was his wife, Irina, the niece of the czar Nicholas II. “It was reportedly a happy, if unconventional, marriage. By his own account, Felix enjoyed dressing in women’s clothing and cavorting with gypsy bands.” (source) Interestingly, it was in Yusupov’s Moika Palace that Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitri and others murdered, with great difficulty in fact, Rasputin on the night of December 29th, 1916.
Exiled from his homeland during the Russian Revolution in 1917, Yusupov retrieved some of his spectacular jewels, objets d’art, including the Buddha, and two paintings by Rembrandt from his Moika Palace, the sale proceeds of which helped sustain the family in exile. Yusupov’s mother, Princess Zenaide, owned an impressive collection second only to that of the imperial vaults, which included historically significant and priceless jewels such as the Polar Star diamond, the famous Le Regente Pearl and the incredible La Pelegrina Pearl. Many of the jewels left behind became the property of the Bolsheviks as they looted their way through Russia, repossessing the belongings of the country’s wealthiest families.
“News of the discovery in 1925 of the jewelry cache in Prince Yusupov’s Moscow palace haunted the international press. Allegedly the hiding place had been betrayed by the son of the mason who devised it in 1917. Secret passages from the picture gallery led to two underground dungeons, from which were recovered 255 brooches, 13 tiaras (among them the Cartier tiara bought in 1914), 42 bracelets and 210 kilos of assorted objets d’art. By this time, however, Princess Zenaida and her son Felix had already got the historic pearls and diamonds out of the country. After an unsuccessful American journey, in which he had planned to raise money by selling his precious stones, Felix approached Pierre Cartier in 1922 and offered him the following diamonds:
“The ‘Ram’s Head’, a 17.47-carat stone, light rose in colour and cut in the shape of a flattened octahedron. This diamond had seemingly been given by Catherine the Great to her favourite, Potemkin. Cartier’s bought it in 1927 and sold it to Daisy Fellowes. It was stolen from her in 1939 and has not been seen since.
“The ‘Sultan of Morocco’, a steel-coloured diamond of 35.67 carats, said to have been in the possession of the Yusupov family since 1840. In 1924 Cartier’s debated whether to display the stone at the great 1925 Art Deco exhibition. In 1926 or 1929 (the records are not clear) the diamond was sold to America. As late as 1969 Cartier’s arranged to display it in the World of Gems Exhibition held in the New York State Museum. In 1972 it passed into the possession of the jeweller F. J. Cooper of Philadelphia.
“The ‘Diamond Earrings of Marie Antoinette’, with two drop diamonds of 34.59 carats, which had allegedly belonged to the Yusupov family since 1802. When and to whom Cartier’s sold them is unclear.
“The ‘Polar Star’, a cushion-shaped diamond of 41.28 carats, originally the property of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s elder brother. Its second owner was Princess Tatiana Yusupov (1769-1841). The name comes from its cut as an eight-pointed star. From 1924 the stone was lodged , with interruptions, with Cartier London, and it was then pledged along with other Yusupov jewels with the London firm of T. M. Sutton until Cartier’s redeemed it. In Paris in 1928 they sold it for £48,000 to Lydia, Lady Deterding, the wife of the Dutch oil magnate.
“Other Yusupov treasured included the ‘Blue Venus’, carved from a single light blue 11-cm-long sapphire, on a base set with a ruby with Medusa-head intaglio; a Buddha carved out of ruby from the Summer Palace near Peking; and a statuette of Jupiter ascribed to Benvenuto Cellini.” (source)
Once in Cartier’s possession, the Buddha received an elaborate presentation case similar to those made by Faberge for his jeweled sculptures, which added to the Buddha’s value, according to jewelry expert and historian Clive Kandel in an article by Robb Report. “The identities of its owners and its whereabouts during the decades between its appearance at Cartier London in the 1920s and its reemergence five years ago in South America remain unknown. Cartier London displayed the Buddha alongside Blue Venus, a statuette that was carved from a large sapphire and also belonged to Yusupov. But because many of Cartier London’s records were lost, no one knows what became of the Buddha after the piece’s time at the boutique.” (source)
At present, this storied Buddha is now a part of Fiona Druckenmiller’s magnificent collection at her boutique, FD Gallery, a treasure whose next adventurous chapter awaits an equally illustrious author to add to its impressive provenance.
Other important jewels in the Yusupov collection include the following pieces:
Below are links to more Yusupov treasures: