A guest post by Clive Kandel, a Cartier and 20th century jewelry historian and 1stdibs Fine Jewelry Curator
The sale of the Barbara Hutton Mdivani Cartier Jade Necklace for $27.44 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong to the Cartier Collection and the passing of so many years has jogged my memory about the sad and mysterious circumstances of this famed strand of jade beads.
Princess Nina Mdivani, Barbara Hutton’s sister-in-law, was married to Denis Conan Doyle, son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes escapades. The Conan Doyle fortune, derived from royalties, was similar to that of today’s authors such as Danielle Steele and Stephen King, the difference being that the Sherlock Holmes stories are still being read and filmed over 100 years later. Huge amounts of revenue flowed into the family trust funds and continue to do so to this day. This is where one of the marrying Mdivanis enters the scene. Nina was perhaps the least attractive of the famous Russian clan. Denis Conan Doyle married Princess Nina Mdivani in 1936. A year earlier, Barbara Hutton had divorced Nina’s brother Prince Alexis, but during that brief marriage, Nina and Barbara developed a very close friendship. It was not difficult to be Barbara Hutton’s friend in those early years. Hutton was lonely and Nina had a very shrewd and determined lust for cash and jewels. It was a perfect mise-en-scène; the experienced Russian refugee and the gullible spoilt richest girl in the world. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could not have played this out so well. It was a bond that lasted until the tragic death of Barbara Hutton in 1979.
Nina Mdivani would accompany Barbara Hutton on her shopping trips to Cartier. The game that she would play was that of “one for you and two for me”, and the Poor Little Rich Girl was just too happy to oblige. Nina was fun and it was all kept in the family, as they say.
Princess Nina Mdivani had a very rich husband in Conan Doyle and an even richer best friend in Barbara Hutton. However, the Conan Doyle fortune had to be shared amongst Denis’ siblings. I do not think Nina liked sharing; in fact later on in her life that became her tragedy. During the late 1930’s, Hutton lived in grand style in London, as did Nina. Hutton, now an ex-Princess having become a Countess, remained faithful, loyal and very generous to her ex sister-in-law. Many Cartier jewels that have appeared as having been owned by Barbara Hutton were given as gifts to Princess Nina Mdivani. One can imagine how the scheming Nina saw her future paved with Hutton gold and diamonds.
Denis Conan Doyle practiced and preached spiritualism, and both Nina and Denis Conan Doyle traveled the world accompanied by Denis’s very handsome secretary, Tony Harwood, of Eastern Seaboard Blue Blood stock. Tony was tall, mysterious, well educated and secretively gay. Seduced by the glamor of Nina and Barbara Hutton, Tony developed a taste for the finer life, and both he and his employer’s wife were such best friends that when Denis suddenly died on a trip to India in 1955, they married soon after. During the 1950s and 1960s, Nina fought for more control of the Conan Doyle fortune and succeeded in buying back the family shares with the help of a brilliant publisher and a very willing bank that was more than impressed with Nina’s association with Barbara Hutton. These were Nina’s golden years. She could now spend like Barbara Hutton. Nina ordered from H.J. Mulliner a coach-built white Silver Wraith Limousine de Ville Rolls Royce, in which the chauffeur sat exposed whilst his Princess was driven around the finest European cities. Nina and Tony traveled extravagantly, staying in the finest hotels. The Rolls Royce would be either waiting outside a London or Paris Ritz or Cartier rue de la Paix or New Bond Street. Nina’s race with her ex-sister in-law, however, was slowly emptying her coffers and the easily impressed bank was not being repaid.
I can imagine the phone calls in Nina’s seductive deep accent: “Barbara darling, is Nina, I love to see you”. Barbara Hutton, ever generous and wanting to please, would order gifts for Nina from Cartier Paris until the 1960s.
About 1973, fantastic Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry was offered anonymously in a London auction room, only to be withdrawn an hour before the auction was scheduled. The groan of the London jewelry dealers was loud. It happened again and again. Shortly after, by sheer good fortune, I met Princess Nina Mdivani’s godson, who enlightened me to the reason for this mystery. Some of Nina’s jewels were being held as security against loans and Barbara Hutton would rescue her at the last moment, thereby rendering the auction house bare of those amazing jewels. I found myself as a young jewelry dealer in the right place at the right time with the right newfound friend.
Sadly, Barbara Hutton was addicted to alcohol and drugs and was aging in an horrendous way. Nina’s Tony unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack in January 1976, whilst Nina herself was now a grey haired, nearly blind, overweight woman clinging to her past. London in the early 1970s was not the best place to be. Oil crises, inflation and left-wing governments assured equal misery regardless.
Perhaps it was her tough Russian background and determination that fooled her into trying to cling to her possessions whilst her living circumstances deteriorated. As many people of Nina’s generation were forced to do during those bleak years, she slowly sold her jewels piece by piece to keep herself in a style to which she was accustomed, although never revealing what jewels she was desperate to keep. I have seen this happen several times and it becomes a losing battle as one ages. No longer able to travel, her vast wardrobe of crowned monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks lay in storage, never to see the light of day until years after her death in 1987. The Rolls Royce as well as other trappings of a glamorous past had long been sold off.
Her fashionable Mayfair doctor, Gordon Atkinson, who was my doctor as well, tried to take care of her as her health and vision deteriorated, despite his mounting unpaid bills. Finally, out of exasperation, Dr. Atkinson told her that if she could not pay his fees she would have to apply for the British equivalent of Medicaid. Gordon was the most direct doctor I have ever met. I know that this was the final ignominy for Princess Nina Mdivani. Too proud to be considered poor, she became bedridden and alone for the last days of her life. Unbeknownst to the world, Nina died with a close kept secret. The Barbara Hutton-Mdivani Cartier Jade Necklace that sold April 7th, 2014 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $27.44 million to the Cartier Museum Collection was found hidden under her bed.
This is a true story. Many years ago, a wise friend told me that if you live long enough you can see the whole world go by. Hopefully, I have much more to see and remember.
Copyright © Clive Kandel 2014