Amassed over decades by Italian financier Antonio Benedetto Spada (pictured), now in his 70s, some 600 rare bejewelled insignia once strung around the necks of royalty, knights, and other VIPs, go on show at Paris’ prestigious Legion of Honour museum from November 19. Here Spada looks over a uniform worn by the Knights of Malta. (AFP/File/Jacques Demarthon)
Outing of ‘born collector’s’ rare Garters, Thistles, Fleeces and more
PARIS (AFP) — Garters, Thistles, Golden Fleeces and even the Thai Order of the White Elephant: priceless orders amassed by the world’s probably biggest such private collector come out of the closet at a Paris museum this week.
Amassed over decades by Italian financier Antonio Benedetto Spada, now in his 70s, some 600 rare bejewelled insignia once strung around the necks of royalty, knights, and other VIPs, go on show at Paris’ prestigious Legion of Honour museum from November 19.
Spada, who describes himself as “a born collector”, began hoarding old books and prints at only 16 before progressing to silverware, antique clocks, stamps and art, until he stumbled and stopped on his first handcrafted order, or decoration, at the Paris flea-market in the 1960s.
Though not a particularly ancient piece — a plaque from a Spanish military order under 20th century King Alfonso XIII — “it was of exceptional beauty and quality, I studied it, and then began my collection,” he told AFP.
A wealthy man able to feed his passion, Spada in the next two decades went on to collect 2,000 pieces in his 15th-century Avogadro-Spada castle in Brescia, Italy.
But in 1984, “six men armed with pistols and baseball bats kidnapped my entire collection. They demanded ransom for its return but then got scared and melted it down for the mere value of the jewels and gold. It was a drop in the ocean compared to the historical value,” he said.
Among pieces lost for ever to history were a 19th century medal from the kings of Savoy, and Napoleon’s Golden Fleece, he said.
“But the next day I began collecting again,” he said in an interview. “I have around 3,000 pieces now.”
“I don’t collect military medals — only decorations and orders of chivalry,” he stressed.
Modern decorations find their origins in medieval orders of chivalry, which by the Renaissance had often been acquired by European monarchs who added a few extra of their own. Current high honours such as the Order of the Golden Fleece, England’s Order of the Garter, Denmark’s Order of the Elephant or Scotland’s Order of the Thistle date back to the Middle Ages or before.
Such orders, said Spada, are fascinating not only because of their extraordinary quality of craftsmanship and use of precious stones but because each one has a particular history.
“While orders of chivalry have strict rules, a king may award a bigger one encrusted with a diamond to a general who won a decisive battle, or decide to make one in gold rather than in silver,” he said.
“There are 1,000 variations on a single theme. That is what I find amusing. I have always sought uncommon pieces.”
Precious metal-worked decorations first surfaced around the 18th century in Europe, Spada said, as up until then knights from the Order of Malta for example sewed white cloth crosses on their robes.
A world expert on the matter with several reference works under his wing, Spada said France’s Legion of Honour Museum, “one of the few specialist museums”, appeared to be exactly the right place to show his collection for the first time.
Among treasures on show are a papal Golden Rose offered in 1881 to Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil, for abolishing slavery, as well as some 30 Golden Fleeces, the order founded in 1430 by Duke Philip III of Burgundy to celebrate his marriage to Portuguese princess Isabel of Aviz.
But pieces from Japan, India, Thailand and elsewhere are also on show.
“I feel I don’t own these pieces but am only their guardian,” said Spada, who is mulling their fate once he passes away.
Collar of the Royal Order of the Two Sicilies