The Candy Box

In the residence of the La Mottes, police found a candy box–a bonbonnière–when the Comtesse was arrested, on suspicion of being involved in a great jewel heist.

According to Monsieur Beugnot, who claimed to have seen this box at least a dozen times:

It was a black tortoiseshell box, surrounded by large diamonds, exactly alike, and of the finest water; the subject on the top of the box was a rising sun which dispersed the mists on the horizon; you touched a spring and under this first subject was found a portrait of the queen, clothed in a simple white robe (without any other ornament on her head than her hair, raised up in the fashion of the period, and two earrings falling on her neck, one on either side), and holding a rose in her hand, precisely in the same attitude and costume as the character played by Mademoiselle d’Oliva in the park of Versailles. They would, moreover, have found in this box, two of the Cardinal’s letters . . . .

The explanation

Madame de La Motte was the descendant of a bastard of Henri II, king of France. Her family’s fortunes had been in decline for a very long time. Her family–mother, father, brother, and baby sister–ended up penniless in Paris. When her father died and mother abandoned her (and her siblings), young Jeanne was forced to beg.

 Eventually, this young lady found a benefactress, received some education, and petitioned the king for the rights she felt she deserved. Despite being given a modest annuity, she was in financial trouble by 1783/4. She had married an officer in the French cavalry named Nicolas de La Motte. They began to refer to themselves as Comte and Comtesse de La Motte and she began to spread the tale that she was close friends with the queen.

A man, equally as desperate as the Comtesse for different reasons, heard these rumors. Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan and the Comtesse had previously met, but they struck up a real relationship now. She convinced him that she was entrusted as go-between with letters from the queen to the Cardinal. He wished for nothing more than a reconciliation with the queen. The Comtesse made him believe this was happening. In the process, he was led to believe that the queen was in need of some loans; this embarrassing business was to be conducted through the conduit of Mme de La Motte, of course. The Comtesse/Mme de La Motte, of course, pocketed the money.

Then a diamond necklace came into the picture. Messrs Boehmer and Bassenge had collected some of the finest diamonds in the world to create the most fantastic and extravagant diamond necklace in existence. They hoped to sell it to Mme du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, but were thwarted when the extravagant old king died and the new stylish queen showed no interest in the necklace. Another desperate set of people were added into the mixture.

Learning of the necklace, Mme de La Motte went to work convincing the Cardinal that the queen actually didwant the necklace but for political reasons couldn’t be seen to purchase it publicly (which sounds reasonable until you realize that it would be difficult to hide an enormous diamond necklace!). Again, the transaction for the 2800-carat, 1.6-million-franc necklace went through Mme de La Motte. The necklace disappeared . . .

Back to the Candy Box

. . . Except that odd diamond embellishments appeared here and there around the La Motte household, including a candy box decorated with diamonds.

The box was damning, also, in that it held a portrait of the queen. This sounds very much like a version of the portrait painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun that caused quite a stir. In this portrait the queen is wearing a “risque” white dress and holding a rose. This became the basis for a theatrical production put on for the benefit of Cardinal Rohan to convince him of the veracity of Mme de La Motte’s claims. A young lady, a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva, was hired to play the part of the queen. In the darkened gardens of Versailles, she was led to a spot where she met with the Cardinal. She handed him a rose and told him, “You know what this means.” Clearly, this was a sign from the Queen herself that he was back in favor, just what he had been dreaming of. This is whatMonsieur Beugnot is referring to when he speaks of Mlle d’Oliva.

And, of course, the box was damning in a third way. The letters it may have contained would have been clear proof that some kind of hoax was going on. The letters were part of the correspondence that was forged by Mme de La Motte’s secretary, Retaux de Villette. Tough Beugnot states that there were letters in the box, he appears to also be unaware that the police found the box. If there were letters inside it, they certainly would have found them. So either Monsieur Beugnot is mistaken about letters being put in this candy box, or they were destroyed. Either possibility is plausible.

It is a remarkable role for such a surprisingly mundane trinket.

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