Le Petit Caporal: Collecting Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon’s life story has everything the collector could want: a great rise to prominence, a hero of a Revolution that promoted equality, liberty and fraternity, a love story, and a mighty fall.
Napoleon boasts some of the most valuable and unusual memorabilia relating to a historical figure.
Napoleon rose to prominence following the French revolution, out of the ashes of the absolute monarchy. His competent military tactics and fierce advocation of the ideals of the revolution made him a French hero.
He became Emperor of France in 1804, and reigned until 1815. In this position he planned to take over much of Europe, and spread the ideals of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité.
As such he is best remembered for the Napoleonic Wars, where he often won against larger armies. As a result he is considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time.
However, Napoleon was conquered when the Sixth Coalition invaded France in 1814, and was exiled to the island of Elba. He escaped and returned to power after less than a year, but was again defeated at The Battle of Waterloo, one of the most famous battles in history.
Napoleon spent the last six years of his life a prisoner, confined on the island of Saint Helena.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British press and other opponents portrayed Napoleon as a dangerous tyrant and usurper, and belittled him as a comically short and angry general. For others, he was a liberator, the man who ended lawlessness and disorder in post-Revolutionary France. His Napoleonic code influenced laws across Europe that continue to stand today. As a cultural icon he symbolises military genius and political power.
Collecting Napoleon memorabilia
I won’t sugar coat it – Napoleon memorabilia is exclusive. The Petit Caporal invites hefty bids whenever his items come up at auction, generally in prestigious auction houses. These are investment grade collectibles, because Napoleon will remain a significant historical figure, particularly for France, far into the future. Bad news for budget collectors with expensive tastes.
However, it is great fun following auction results for Napoleon memorabilia, not least because each item is bound to have a good story behind it, but also because some of the memorabilia is more than a little unusual…
Documents and letters
Some of the most expensive Napoleon collectibles are documents and letters. Handwritten letters, military instructions, notes, and scribbles with an autograph can fetch tens of thousands at auction.
A passionate love letter that he wrote to his fiancée Josephine following a quarrel is the most expensive love letter ever sold. It translates roughly: ‘what is your strange power, incomparable Josephine? One of your thoughts poisons my life, my soul torn by the most contradictory resolutions… I give you three kisses, one on your heart, one on your mouth, one in your eyes’. The letter achieved £276,000 at Christie’s in 2007.
A letter written during his last exile on Saint Helena in English, as the fallen Emperor learnt the language of his captors to fill his time, sold for €325,000 at Osenat Auction House in 2012.
Warmongering letters, and a resignation letter also make up the most expensive items of Napoleon memorabilia].
Weapons and battle-related objects
As one of the most famous military commanders in history, Napoleon’s weapons and battle-related objects are of particular interest to collectors.
Napoleon’s gold encrusted sword, used at the battle of Marengo in June 1800, holds the record for the most expensive antique weapon ever sold at auction. It achieved €4.8 million at Osenat Auction House in 2007.
People retain a fascination with Napoleon’s private life – the man behind the myth. Anything that is symbolic of the emperor and his personal life is sure to see interest from collectors.
The stereotypical and iconic image of Napoleon, produced again and again for the last two centuries in cartoon, film, and parody, depicts him wearing a Bicorn hat. It is unsurprising therefore that an early 1st Empire Bicorn hat, worn by Napoleon himself, achieved £66,000 at Christie’s in 2005.
Another item of his clothing sold at auction was a pair of silk stockings worn during his exile, sold for $5,676 at Heritage Auctions in 2009.
A scrap of wallpaper from the emperor’s bedroom on Saint Helena was sold for £1,250 by Mullocks in 2003. A wine glass with a fitted case owned by Napoleon sold for £10,800 at Bonhams in 2011.
But most sought after are items that relate to the Emperor’s love affair with Josephine de Beauharnais. The romance of the era, Napoleon’s passion for a widow six years older than him is a famous story. He wrote her numerous love letters leading up to their marriage, and two days after their wedding he left to lead the French army in Italy, writing her further love letters during their separation.
Josephine had affairs, and Napoleon was infuriated, and conducted affairs of his own. All the time he remained passionately in love with her. When Napoleon divorced her in order to remarry ‘a womb’ as he referred to his second wife, in order to produce an heir, they read statements of devotion to each other at the divorce ceremony. He never stopped loving Josephine, and spoke her name as his last word as he died.
The modest engagement ring that he bought for Josephine when he was but a soldier, long before he became emperor of France, sold for €730,000 at Osenat Auction House in 2013 after an estimate of just €10,000-€15,000.
Napoleon memorabilia does not stop at items owned or touched by him. It in fact extends to parts of the man himself.
- Hair – there is a surprisingly large market in Napoleon hair. In 2010, a lock of hair cut from his head the day after his death sold for $13,200 at a New Zealand auction house. In 2011, a lock of his hair was found inside a book belonging to Sir Walter Scott on the British BBC2 series Antiques Road Trip.
- Tooth – in November 2005, an upper right canine tooth that once sat inside Napoleon’s mouth was sold for £11,000 at Dominic Winter auctions. It is thought the tooth was removed during Napoleon’s imprisonment on Saint Helena.
- Death masks – it was common in Napoleon’s time for a death mask to be taken from a corpse. There is much controversy and mystery surrounding the origins and current whereabouts of the original cast moulds of Napoleon’s face. There are just four examples confirmed as genuine, sadly for collectors all in the hands of institutions.
- Penis – In 1916, descendants of Vignali, the priest present at Napoleon’s autopsy, sold a collection of Napoleonic items, including what they claimed was his penis – described as a 1”-1.5” long shrivelled eel. It was sold again in 1977 by a Paris auction house for $3,000. The buyer was professor John K Lattimer. The penis remains in his family, and recently his daughter declined an offer of $100,000 for it.
On a budget
If you don’t have the cash to splash on a piece of the emperor himself, but you are still keen to get in on the Napoleon action, you can pick up books on the Public and Private Life of Napoleon Bonaparte ($10+), toy soldiers based on Napoleon (£15+), porcelain Napoleon figurines ($20+), commemorative china plates depicting his famous battles ($25+), bronze busts ($70+) framed portrait paintings ($25+), paperweights ($40+), even a figural lamp ($90) or a whisky bottle in the shape of the emperor ($50).
These items can be found at auctions, on eBay, at second hand stores, flea markets and garage sales.
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