Luke Honey’s cabinet of curiosities: Napoleonic memorabilia

Antiques dealer Luke Honey discusses the appeal of collecting Napoleonic memorabilia...

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This October, Bonhams holds an auction devoted to Napoleonic memorabilia, marking the 200th anniversary of the emperor’s death. The sale includes one of Napoleon’s legendary bicorne hats (est £100,000–£150,000) and a bone cane carved for the emperor in exile (est £70,000–£90,000).

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Of all the monumental figures in history, it’s Napoleon who still fascinates the most obsessive collectors. Two hundred years on, the cult of Napoleon is alive and well: the film director Bryan Forbes owned an extensive collection of Napoleonic books, all neatly bound in scarlet morocco, and decorated with Forbes’ personal bookplate, engraved with the imperial bee. My late father-in-law was so keen on Napoleon that he married a Josephine.

Napoleonic memorabilia was popular in the early years of the 20th century, especially with Wall Street stockbrokers, tycoons and amateur historians: William J. Latta, an agent for the Pennsylvania railroad, amassed an extraordinary collection of Napoleonic and Revolutionary objects (described, with some justification, as ‘the finest in the world’), auctioned by the Anderson Galleries of New York in 1913.

Latta’s collection included thousands of rare ‘portraits, views, caricatures and battle scenes’ and historically significant documents, including an original draft of Napoleon’s farewell speech to the Old Guard at Fontainebleau and the civil marriage certificate of Napoleon and Josephine.

Equestrian Portrait Napoleon memorabilia
FRANCE – CIRCA 2002: Equestrian portrait of Napoleon I, 1810, by Joseph Chabord (1786-1848), oil on canvas. Napoleonic era, France, 19th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Of course, the fascination with Napoleonic memorabilia is the magic of a direct association with the Great Man himself. One of the most bizarre objects ever offered for sale at auction is Napoleon’s phallus, allegedly removed from his body at autopsy in 1821. The relic – described in dry cataloguing terms as a ‘mummified tendon’ – passed through the hands of several dealers and collectors and is now thought to reside in the New Jersey suburbs.

More savoury is a lock of his hair, which sold at Osenat auction rooms in Paris for €10,000. Most importantly for collectors, it came with a signed certificate, tracing the provenance back to Napoleon’s valet, Louis Marchand.

But perhaps the ultimate trophy for Napoleon buffs is an original black felt bicorne hat. Nineteen have been identified as belonging to Napoleon; one of them can be seen at the Courvoisier cognac museum in Jarnac. This autumn, a further example is being offered at Sotheby’s with a ‘guesstimate’ of £400,000–£600,000, a reasonable ‘come and get it’ valuation considering another hat was sold to a South Korean collector for a staggering €1.8m in 2014.

Napoleonic memorabilia Bicorne hat
A rare bicorne hat worn by Napoleon, c1806, is up for sale at Bonhams in October (est £100,000- £150,000). (Photo by Bonhams)

That said, there’s still room for collectors with tighter wallets. I’m taken with Napoleon’s engraved liqueur glass, which came with the all-important St Helena provenance, and a framed display case. It sold for £1,320 at Christie’s in 1987. And an attractive engraved guest’s ticket to Napoleon’s coronation fetched £3,120 at Christie’s in 2005.

Even more affordable is a handsome Christofle silver-plated bottle opener bearing Napoleon’s profile and the imperial bee. Dating from the 1970s, these sell on eBay for under £50 – the ultimate statement for a smart drinks tray.

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Luke Honey is an antiques dealer and writer. Find out more at lukehoney.co.uk.