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The jewel with a sparkling history

Secret legacies, family feuds and the aristocratic rakes who couldn’t resist a bet

The octagonal-cut, flawless Hope Spinel, which Matthew Girling sold at Bonhams for £962,500 on 24 September (against a £150,000 to £200,000 estimate), has a backstory full of drama.

Little is known of the ruby-like gemstone before the 19th century, although it is recorded as originating in Tajikistan, which was the main source of large spinels from the first century AD. Its nickname comes from the London banker and gem collector Henry Philip Hope, who owned it until he died in 1839. Hope secretly gave the 50.13-carat spinel, which Bonhams described as of similar size and colour to a small plum, to one of his three nephews to avoid death duties, together with the rest of his 700-piece gem collection, which included 16 spinels and at the time was valued at what would be nearly £8m in today’s money.

A decade-long inheritance feud was then fought out as two nephews, each believing that he was the intended recipient of the gems, headed to the courts. Eventually, the eldest nephew, Henry Thomas Hope, retained the most valuable stones, including the spinel, with the rest of the collection going to his younger brother. When Henry Thomas died in 1862, his widow, Anne Adele Hope, inherited the jewels.

Anne Adele, concerned that their only daughter was married to a notorious gambler, the Duke of Newcastle, bequeathed the Hope legacy to her second grandson, latterly Lord Francis Hope. But, says Emily Barber, Bonhams UK’s director of jewellery, “he was a gambler too and was declared bankrupt by the mid-1890s, after receiving his colossal inheritance”.

By 1917, Lord Francis had sold his collection and the Hope Spinel was auctioned off in July that year at Christie’s for £1,060, the equivalent of around £80,000 today, to a dealer. It next entered the collection of Lady Mount Stephen, who was closely connected to Queen Mary, the wife of King George V. When she died, the spinel went to her niece by marriage, Elsie Reford, a Canadian art collector, who in turn gave it to her granddaughter, who was also Lady Mount Stephen’s goddaughter. It was her direct descendant who sold the spinel (“languishing in a drawer in Australia,” a spokeswoman says) nearly 100 years after it had gone out of the hands of the Hope family.