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A Miniature Portrait of King Louis XVI

The humble American colonial, Benjamin Franklin, was also the most skilled courtier and diplomat in the early Republic, ingratiating himself personally to Louis XVI of France. As Franklin was leaving office in 1784 to return home to America, Louis resolved to present the great savant with a token of his appreciation, a small present of the kind often tendered to departing diplomats.

Yet in Louis' inimitable style, the gift would be no small affair. Louis arranged to have a miniature portrait of himself made by Louis Sicardÿ (1746-1825). Housing the portrait in a gold case inscribed on the verso with Louis' crossed-L and protected by a glass bezel, Louis had the whole set into two concentric rings encrusted with a total of 408 diamonds.

The value of the portrait was not lost on Franklin, who offered the gift to the nation to forestall any suspicion of impropriety. With the approval of Congress, and Jefferson's blessing, the portrait was his, and passed as a special line item in his will to his daughter Sarah Bache. But distrusting the lure of baubles and ever mindful of the need to uphold the civic virtue of American citizens in our fragile new Republic, Franklin placed a condition upon his bequest .

The King of France's Picture set with Four hundred and eight Diamonds, I give to my Daughter, Sarah Bache, requesting however that she would not form any of those Diamonds into Ornaments either for herself of Daughters and thereby introduce or countenance the expensive, vain and useless Fashion of wearing Jewels in this Country, and that those immediately connected with the Picture may be preserved with the same.

Sarah complied. But once in her hands, she removed the outer ring of diamonds to sell to finance a planned excursion to France. Some wags have suggested that Sarah justified her action by arguing that while Benjamin disapproved of jewelry, he approved education, and if nothing else, travel is educational.

In succeeding years, the portrait of Louis passed from mother to daughter, with each generation taking its toll on the diamonds. Diamonds were presented to family members, or sold to finance pet projects until by the mid-20th century, only the inner ring (visible on the left side of the image above) and a single diamond remained. Franklin's portrait of Louis XVI was deposited at the APS in 1959 by Richard Duane, a descendant, and a small number of original diamonds have made their way back in subsequent years.

Currently on exhibit

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