Saturday, February 27th, 2016
A ring that was ostensibly owned by Saint Joan of Arc sold on Friday at Timeline Auctions for £240,000 ($333,000), blowing through the presale estimate of £10,000-14,000 ($13,990-19,590). Including buyer’s premium the final cost was £297,600 ($412,845). According to Timeline spokesperson, “The ring is returning to France.” Some news reports assume the French government is the buyer, but the auction house was vague on the particulars so it could just as well be a private collector.
The ring is silver-gilt inscribed with the letters “I” and “M” on the shoulders and “IHS” and “MAR” on the face. Those are abbreviations for Jesus and Mary. Along the shank are lozenges with very worn florals inside. It was made around 1400 and has an illustrious ownership history that can in theory be traced all the way back to the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431.
After Joan’s arrest, her ring was taken by Bishop Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, chaplain to the Duke of Burgundy and ally of the English, who presided over her trial for heresy. According to the ownership history established by researchers in the 20th century, Cauchon gave the ring to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial. It remained in his family, the Cavendish-Bentinck family (Dukes of Portland), for 500 years until the early 20th century when Lady Ottoline Morrell gave it to artist Augustus John a few years before 1914. It was through John that it first entered the auction market in 1914. The ring passed through several hands before physician James Hasson acquired it at a Sotheby’s auction in 1947 for the grand sum of £175. The current seller was Dr. Hasson’s son Robert Hasson.
Joan’s rings came up several times at her trial, as documented in the extant transcript (English translation here). The prosecution kept trying to make something of them, asking leading questions insinuating that her rings were seen as objects of devotion and power like the rings of kings, popes and saints. From the transcript:
Asked if she herself did not have some rings, she replied to us, bishop: “You have one of mine; give it back to me.” She said the Burgundians have another ring; and she asked us, if we had her ring, to show it to her.
Asked who gave her the ring which the Burgundians had, she answered her father or her mother; and she thought the names Jhesus Maria were written thereon; she did not know who had them written; she did not think there was any stone in it; and she was given the ring at Domrémy. She said that her brother gave her the other ring which we had and she charged us to give it to the Church. She said she never cured any one with any of her rings. [...]
Asked whether the good wives of the town did not touch her ring with their own, she answered that “many women touched my hands and my rings; but I do not know with what thought or intention.” [...]
Asked of what substance one of her rings was, on which the words Jhesus Maria were written, she answered that she did not properly know; and if it was of gold, it was not of fine gold; and she did not know whether it was of gold or brass; she thought there were three crosses, and to her knowledge no other signs save the words Jhesus Maria.
Asked why she gladly looked at this ring when she was going to battle, she answered that it was out of pleasure, and in honor of her father and mother; and having her ring in her hand and on her finger she touched St. Catherine who appeared before her.
According to the auction house and the documentation (all of which dates to the 20th century), the ring matches this description, but I think it’s a pretty huge fudge to say the ring has three crosses on it like Joan said it did. There are no crosses engraved on the ring. The lot description describes: “incised niello-filled florid lozenges and triangles, the design giving the appearance of three crosses.” I don’t really see Joan of Arc being so subtle as to describe crosses formed by negative space instead of just the plain fact of the lozenge decoration.
The wear, ring style and engraving are consistent with a 15th century date, so whoever dropped more than a quarter of a million dollars on the piece has a nifty medieval devotional ring to show for it, plus the Cavendish-Bentinck family lore, a hundred years of speculation and several museum exhibitions in France and England connecting it to Joan of Arc.