In a spectacular 15-minute bidding session, a simple 18th century "toi et moi" (you and me) engagement ring that a 26-year-old Napoleon bought for his fianceé Josephine in 1796 shattered auction estimates and was sold to an anonymous bidder for $949,000, according to ABC News. The presale estimate was a paltry $20,000.
The Osenat at Fontainebleau auction house in France did not have great expectations for the "unimpressive" piece, even though it had belonged to a future emperor and empress. The ring features two tear-shaped gemstones – one diamond and one sapphire — set in opposite directions. The carat weight of the two gems is little less than a carat each.
"In my wildest dreams, I did not think we would outsell the estimate by more than 47 times," said Osenat's Emily Villane. The auction house clearly miscalculated the premium bidders would pay for the Napoleon and Josephine provenance.
There was intense interest in the ring, Osenat said. In addition to the 300 bidders in the Fontainebleau auction house, about 50 more international buyers were connected by phone, and dozens more by email. Bidding started at 10,000 euros, but was quickly raised to 50,000 euros. From then on, the bidding accelerated by increments of 10,000 during the 15-minute bidding war. "When the hammer went down at 730,000 euros there was a huge applause," Villane said.
The size of the gems and style of the ring reflected Napoleon's status in 1796 — eight years before he would become emperor. Although he was a young and promising officer, he was not very wealthy when he proposed to Josephine de Beauharnais, who was six years his senior and a widow with two children.
They wed shortly after the engagement, but the honeymoon lasted less than two days. Napoleon was called on to lead the French army on its successful invasion of Italy. Still smitten, Napoleon would often write to Josephine twice a day. Josephine, on the other hand, remained in Paris, where she tended her children and had an affair with Lt. Hippolyte Charles.
The marriage would end in a divorce, but Josephine kept the beloved engagement ring and passed it down to her daughter, who would later become the Queen of Holland.
More recently, the ring was part of a collection that was owned by Victor Napoleon and his wife, the Princess Clementine of Belgium, who later passed the items down in the family, according to the Los Angeles Times.