The Crown Jewels You Have Never Seen

The French crown jewels are exhibited at the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre. The Hapsburgs’ regalia is showcased in the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer in Vienna.

But the jewels of the House of Savoy, Italy’s ruling family from 1861 to 1946, have been kept hidden at the Bank of Italy’s headquarters in Rome since King Umberto II left the throne, and the country, that final year.

In January, more than 75 years later, the king’s four children — Prince Vittorio Emanuele and the princesses Maria Gabriella, Maria Pia and Maria Beatrice — formally requested the restitution of the jewels, but the bank refused, disputing their ownership. The heirs then sued, and a hearing is scheduled in June in the Court of Rome.

A 1950s photograph of a tray of jewels said to be part of the collection the Bank of Italy is now refusing to turn over to family members.Credit…via Stefano Papi

They are trying to recover what, according to the king’s inventory note to the bank and newspaper photographs published in 1957, is a three-tray box containing 14 pieces. “It is the group of the most important jewels of the House of Savoy, which the consort queen wore during formal receptions,” said Stefano Papi, a jewelry historian. He and Princess Maria Gabriella wrote the book “Jewelry of the House of Savoy,” published in 2007 in the United States.

The piece considered the most important, he said, is a tiara composed of diamond-studded swirls crossed by a chain of round pearls and decorated with 11 drop-shaped pearls at the top and large round pearls at the bottom. It was made by Savoy’s court jeweler, Musy Padre e Figli in Turin, the Savoy family’s hometown.

The tiara echoes the style of another one belonging to the Savoy family that was sold at Sotheby’s in Geneva in May 2021 for 1.47 million Swiss francs ($1.6 million).

The Savoy cache also includes two diamond bracelets; a knot brooch set with a rose-colored diamond; and a double-strand chain (the metal was not specified in the king’s inventory) with knots resembling the Savoy knot, the house’s emblem.

Mr. Papi said the jewelry was last seen in public when worn by Queen Elena of Montenegro, who had received them for safekeeping after the assassination of her father-in-law, King Umberto I, in 1900. They were stored in various places over the years, including a tunnel in central Rome during World War II, and after the war were moved to a safe in the Quirinale Palace, the royal family’s official residence.

But when a 1946 referendum ended the monarchy and Umberto II was going into exile in Portugal, he consigned the jewels to Luigi Einaudi, the governor of the Bank of Italy at the time, along with a note that read, in translation: “Entrusted to the custody of the central treasury of the Bank of Italy to be kept available to whomever has the right.”

The Savoy heirs say the jewels are the family’s property.

“Unlike the collection of coins, the Corpus Nummorum Italicorum, that my grandfather Vittorio Emanuele III donated to the Italian people,” Princess Maria Gabriella said in a phone interview, “the jewels kept at the Bank of Italy have never been donated, nor have they been confiscated. They are private jewels.” A provision of the country’s 1948 constitution that assigns all Savoy’s property to the Italian state does not mention them.

Prince Emanuele Filiberto, an entrepreneur who has appeared on Italian TV (and won its version of “Dancing With the Stars” in 2009), is the only son of Prince Vittorio Emanuele and would have been in line to be king of Italy if history had been different. In a recent interview, he echoed his aunt’s argument: “There is no such thing as Italian crown jewels; they were privately owned by my family.”

The bank, however, has cited Umberto II’s note — and its directive on access — when it has been asked to make the gems available. It refused the princess permission to see and photograph them when she was researching her book in the early 2000s and said no to the city of Turin, which wanted to exhibit them during the 2006 Winter Olympic Games there.

“The real problem is again all that is Italian politics and bureaucracy, and that everything is extremely slow and cumbersome,” Prince Emanuele Filiberto said. “And then nobody knew what to do with them and how to do it. So these jewels went into oblivion.”

A request to photograph the jewels for this article was answered with an official note on behalf of the bank sent by Angela Barbaro, its head of communications directorate: “The jewels are in a ‘closed parcel’ that cannot be opened except for those who have the right to request it; in any case, as a custodian, the Bank of Italy cannot execute any action on this material unless so ordered by the entitled person.” There was no reply to a further question about the identity of the “entitled person.”

Even the potential value of the jewels has been a matter for dispute, but someone who saw them about 50 years ago said he was not impressed.

According to the king’s inventory note, a three-tray box contained 14 pieces, described by an expert as “the most important jewels of the House of Savoy.”Credit…via Stefano Papi

Gianni Bulgari, a member of the Bulgari jewelry family, was among the officials and experts summoned by the bank in 1976 to see the jewelry because rumors were rife in the Italian press that they had been stolen or that some substitution had been made. “I was surprised by the modest quality of the pieces,” Mr. Bulgari, 87, said in a recent phone interview. “They have historical value, but little material one.”

However, Mr. Bulgari noted that he had not done a formal appraisal. “I was just shown the jewelry, nothing was asked and I went out wondering why I was invited,” he said.

The prince said he was not concerned about their financial worth. “I don’t think we are talking about the most exceptional stones in the world, but they have a great historical value,” he said.

As such, Mr. Papi said, “The best thing would be to exhibit them, perhaps in a room at the Quirinale Palace. I don’t understand why the Bank of Italy keeps them hidden. Why?”