The word 'tragic' which people nowadays tend to apply to comparatively minor misfortunes. But it ceretainly remains the most appropriate epithet to describe the fate which befell the unfortunate Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico (1832-67) during the last century.
The Archduke Maximillian was the younger brother of Frances Joseph 1, the Hapsburg Emperor of Austria, whose own life was marked by a series of personal tragedies; his wife, only son and his heir-presumptive nephew all met sudden death by violence. In 1859 some Mexican exiles whose property had been confiscated by the Liberals under Benito Juarez approached Maximilian with the suggestion that he assume the throne of Mexico. The country was then in a state of anarchy, and Maximilian, though he was tempted by the challenge, turned their proposal down. He did, however, decide to visit the New World. The Archduke displayed a keen interest in the sciences, particularly botany, and in 1860 he travelled to Brazil on a botanical expedition.
While he was in Brazil, Maximilian acquired two diamonds which have been named after him. The smaller of the two was a cushion-cut with a greenish-yellow tint weighing 33 carats. It became known as the 'Maximilian' diamond. Maximilian gave it to his wife, the former Princess Charlotte (known as Carlotta), daughter of King Leopold 1 of Belgium, who wore it as a pendant. The larger diamond, which has the more resounding name of 'Emperor Maximilian' weights 41.94 (metric) carats and is also cushion-shaped. It is not known where either diamond was cut but it is possible that they were cut in Brazil which until the present day has possessed a diamond cutting industry, albeit on a smaller scale than those in some other countries.
Having failed with their initial proposition to Maximilian, the Mexican exiles then approached the Emperor Napoleon 111 of France. They succeeded in convincing him that with the assistance of the French army he could obtain glory by regenerating Mexico with a Catholic Prince. Consequently Napoleon 111 urged Maximilian to accept the throne of Mexico; on the other hand the Emperor of Austria endeavoured to dissuade his brother from taking such a step. In the end Maximilian accepted the crown. whereupon he and his wife set sail, arriving in Mexico in May 1864.
The venture was an ill-fated one from the start. Neither Maximilian nor Carlotta was acquinted with the country and its problems and it was not long before it became clear to Napoleon 111 that the Archduke Maximilian was temperamentally unsuitable as a ruler. The reigning government lacked popular appeal and relied solely on French military support, while a series of bad decisions and reports of extravagance came to alienate the people. In addition, Benito Juarez, a native Mexican and the Republic leader, constantly opposed Maximilian and the French.
By the spring of 1865 Napoleon 111 realized that the Mexican venture was a failure, and that he could not continue with it on account of growing opposition within France itself. Then the United States government refused to accord recognition to the Mexican Empire and urged the withdrawel of the French forces. In the following year the French agreed to retire within eighteen months and in October 1866 Maximilian drafted an abdication proclamation. However, he allowed himself to be persuaded to remain in Mexico, and determined not to desert his supporters. Meanwhile the Empress Carlotta returned to Europe to seek aid for her husband.
As a result of the treachery of one of his officers, Maximilian was captured on the night of 14 May 1867. Some foreign governments petitioned to have the Emperor sent back to Europe, but in vain. On 19 June 1867, Maximilian was courtmartialled and shot at Queretaro with two of his generals.
It is reported that the Emperor walked to the spot which had been assigned him and then asked for the men who were going to shoot him and gave each of them one ounce of gold. It has also been stated that on this dreadful day he wore the 'Emperor Maximilian' diamond in a small satchel tied around his neck when he faced the firing squad.
After the perpetration of this infamous deed, which did little credit to the various parties concerned, the 'Maximilian' diamond disappeared. It came to light in 1901 when two Mexicans were apprehended trying to smuggle it into the United States. The customs officials seized the diamond which later that year was auctioned by the United States government: it was bought for $120,000 by a Congressman named Levy. In the following year Levy sold it to William R. Phelps, a jeweller of New York's Maiden Lane, the percursor of 47th Street. In 1946, another jeweller from New York, Morris S. Nelkin, bought the 'Maxilian' and he kept it until one fateful day fifteen years later when a member of his family, suspecting that a burglar was in the house, hid the stone with other valuables in the rubbish bin. Subsequently the rubbish was collected and despite an intensive search of the municipal dump the diamond has never been recovered.
Fortunately the 'Emperor Maximilian' has survived. After the Emperor's execution the diamond was returned to his widow who, as the result of events, was to remain mentally deranged until her death near Brussels in 1927. The gem was sold in order to help pay her medical expenses. In 1919, a Chicago diamond dealer named Ferdinand Hotz acquired the 'Emperor Maximilian' which he displayed at the Century of Progress Exhibition held in that city in 1934. Dispite several offers to buy it, one of which came from Lord Anglesey, Hotz refused to sell the stone and he kept it until he died in 1946, when it was sold to a private collector in New York.
The name of the purchaser has never been revealed and the diamond remained in her possession, mounted in a ring by Cartier, until Christie's auctioned it in New York on the 20 July 1982. On this occasion the sale catalogue stated that the diamond was the property of a lady, sold by the order of the Trustees. It was expected that the diamond would fetch $330,000 (£194,110) but it was sold for $726,000 (£427,050). The sale of the 'Emperor Maximilian' attracted worldwide interest from collectors and journalists alike; during the sale the bidding was so keen that by the time the auctioneer had reached $500,000 no less than ten hands still remained in the air.
The purchaser of the 'Emperor Maxilian' diamond was Laurence Graff, the London jeweller, who has since added the purchases of other notable diamonds to this particular one. Mr Graff had been prepared to go up to $1,000,000, having gone to New York specially to bid for it. He remarked:
"It is a wonderful stone, cut like a modern one, and to do anything to it is unnecessary and would be a shame. I've never seen such a stone - the way it shines with a purple glow in the sunlight is extraordinary - with such a high fluorescence. Several offers have already been made to me for it".
In January 1983, Mr Graff did sell the 'Emperor Maximilian' together with the 'Idol's Eye' and the 'Sultan Abd al-Hamid 11' in a single transaction to the same buyer.