St. Louis, Mo. -- For months before Marion Cartier died last year at the age of 83, international jewelry experts speculated about who would receive the Cartier family jewels.
The only child of Pierre Cartier, who brought his business to the United States from Paris, Miss Cartier was known to have a vast collection of paintings, photographs, letters and a trove of jewels -- including 50 pieces of Cartier jewelry and gems owned by her mother and valued at $2.3 million by Christie's International in Geneva. (Miss Cartier had resumed using her maiden name after separating years ago from her husband, Pierre Claudel.)
So when she decided to send the heirlooms to St. Louis University, a Jesuit-run institution in a city Miss Cartier had visited only once, even the priests who run the school were startled. "We knew we were getting some of her family heirlooms," said the Rev. J. Barry McGannon, the university chancellor, who cultivated a friendship with Miss Cartier during 11 years.
"But when we realized before she died that the jewels were to be part of the collection, we were very surprised."
As were her five daughters, who live in Europe and the Bahamas, and museums in Switzerland and France, and Cartier itself. All had vied for the legacy.
"There was a great deal of speculation in Europe as to what would happen to the collection," said Ralph Destino, chief executive officer of Cartier. "There were theories everywhere, but St. Louis? I don't think that occurred to anyone."
Despite the dismay of the five daughters, who could not be reached, and the other interested parties, the gift apparently cannot be challenged because Miss Cartier was still alive when the property was transferred. Unlike bequests made in a will, the gift is not contestable under U.S. Swiss or French laws.
"The daughters were very unhappy and expressed in concrete terms that they want the jewels returned to them," said Barcy Fox, a former university fund-raiser who helped Father McGannon negotiate the gift.
"Marion loved her daughters and took care of them in every natural, physical and financial way. But she did not want the collection divided until these things had become a vehicle of knowledge about her family. She knew exactly what sort of social and cultural gem she had in front of her."
A university official familiar with the gift, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said he expected the university to negotiate with the daughters. It might, he said, agree to sell the jewels to them or exchange the heirlooms for other Cartier pieces with less sentimental value.
No negotiations will take place until after a two-week exhibit of the collection that will open Sunday at the campus's Busch Memorial Hall. Called "The Legacy of Elma Rumsey Cartier," the collection is named after Miss Cartier's mother, who was born in St. Louis.
Father McGannon was the university's vice chancellor of development when he met Miss Cartier in 1983, after she told her New York lawyer she wanted to explore her St. Louis heritage. He saw an opportunity.
"My job is fund-raising," he said. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime connection for a school like ours. She came to us, looking. We made a connection and it grew."
During the next 11 years, he and Miss Cartier exchanged a steady stream of letters, telephone calls and gifts; he also visited her in Europe. "Marion was easy to get acquainted with," he said. "She told me a lot about her family, her religion."
Father McGannon received a number of personal gifts from her, including a book on religion by her father-in-law, Paul Claudel, the author and the French ambassador to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Father McGannon said that he reciprocated with a religious medallion, a book with pictures of her mother's birthplace and other gifts. In 1993, the school named a renovated campus building Cartier House in her honor.
Crates filled with Cartier memorabilia already had been making their way to St. Louis.
The jewelry includes Elma Cartier's engagement ring with a rectangular diamond valued at $450,000, her pink-coral-and-diamond opera lorgnette, an unusual Basque rosary pendant in gold and lapis lazuli, and a pocket watch with "ELMA" inscribed in diamonds.
An Art Deco enamel vanity case depicting three dogs inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds recalls the Elma and Pierre's pet names for each other in their letters, "Loving Pup" and "Precious Pup."
Also in the collection are more than 700 paintings by Miss Cartier, as well as nearly 1,000 photographs, family portraits and documents.
"For people interested in business history, particularly family businesses, or who are studying French-American relations or who study social history, this is a very significant collection," said Sylvia Neely, a professor of French history at St. Louis University.