This past weekend, one of the largest auctions of Napoleon memorabilia ever held brought in nearly $12.5 million, including $2.4 million for one of the French emperor’s signature two-cornered hats.
A year before Napoleon Bonaparte met his Waterloo, the French emperor abdicated his throne and bid an emotional farewell to the soldiers of his Old Guard at the Château de Fontainebleau on the southern outskirts of Paris. Two centuries after Napoleon departed Fontainebleau for his brief exile in Elba in 1814, hundreds packed an auction house just outside the gates of his former imperial palace this past weekend to bid on an extraordinary collection of Napoleon memorabilia belonging to Monaco’s ruling family.
The gavel dropped on nearly 1,000 items during the two-day event organized by the Osenat and Binoche et Giquello auction firms. Private collectors and public museums snapped up pieces that included Napoleon’s death mask, handwritten letters, a diamond-encrusted dress sword, cologne bottles, military medals and even the emperor’s silk stockings. The auction included the white satin slippers worn by Napoleon’s son at his baptism and an embroidered purse that belonged to his first wife, Josephine. Among the most unusual items was the kitchen knife found on German student Friedrich Staps, who intended to use it to assassinate Napoleon in Austria in 1809. Instead, the plot was foiled, and Staps was executed by a firing squad for his crime.
Reflecting the heated market for Napoleon’s effects, the New York Times reported that most items put up for bid brought in double their presale estimates. A lock of Napoleon’s hair sold for nearly $50,000, while his hunting rifle fetched more than $300,000. An 1807 portrait of Napoleon by French artist Paul Delaroche sold for $570,000, while an enormous bust of the emperor raked in $870,000. A pair of Napoleon’s gloves even sold for $75,000—10 times the price estimated by the auctioneers.
The highlight of the auction, however, was one of Napoleon’s signature two-cornered hats, known as a “bicorne,” made of black-felted beaver fur and said to have been worn by the military leader during the Battle of Marengo in Italy in 1800. While the bicorne was common among military men, Napoleon donned his in a distinctive style. “Napoleon wore his bicorne hats in a different way to everybody else and that was sideways. He did this to make himself stand out and be easily identified,” auction house president Jean-Pierre Osenet told London’s Daily Mail newspaper. “There are not that many historical people who can be identified by a single item. Churchill was famous for his cigars, and Napoleon was famous for his hats.”
Napoleon eschewed leather linings inside his chapeaus, and the 19-inch-long headpiece that was auctioned off featured a quilted silk interior. Napoleon wore an estimated 120 bicornes throughout his military career, and most of his 19 surviving hats are housed in museum collections. The rare item was initially valued at between $375,000 and $500,000, but it sold for $2.4 million to a bidder working on behalf of South Korean businessman T.K. Lee.
The weathered hat had been given initially to Napoleon’s cavalry veterinarian, Joseph Giraud, and it remained in his family until it was sold in 1926 to Monaco’s Prince Louis II, great-grandfather of Prince Albert II, the principality’s current ruler. Prince Louis II, a great admirer of Napoleon, began to assemble a remarkable collection of the emperor’s effects in 1895, and Prince Rainier III added to the artifacts, which were put on display in a museum attached to the prince’s Monaco palace.
The House of Grimaldi recently decided to part with the treasures in order to pay for a palace restoration. “Due to necessary rehabilitation of the Palais de Monaco, which will enhance our cultural heritage, I prefer to give a new lease of life to this collection of objects and relics, by organizing a visible and grouped auction, rather than to see them remain in the shadows,” Prince Albert II said in a statement about the decision to sell the artifacts.
The sale brought in nearly $12.5 million, including fees, according to the auctioneers. The fierce bidding for many items reflects a recent trend in the market for Napoleon memorabilia. The New York Times reported that “beginning in the early 2000s, the value of Napoleonic relics has risen relentlessly, undented by the global recession.” An engagement ring belonging to Josephine sold for $1.2 million last year, and her marriage contract with Napoleon fetched more than $500,000 in June. The approaching bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo in June 2015 is expected to only drive the prices of Napoleon artifacts higher.