Napoleonic history continues to fascinate scholars and enthusiasts from all over the world. Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who elevated France to its greatest glory in the military field, is still today one of the most beloved (and hated) characters in history.
The Imperial Era, from 1805 to 1815, has many followers in the world of reenactors, but above all, it is particularly successful in the private collecting sphere. While I consider myself an avid collector of books from that historical period, there are those who go further, seeking out artifacts, weapons and garments that belonged to Napoleon himself.
The most appreciated items are usually sold by auction houses, such as Osenat, Sotheby’s or Christie’s, which have auctioned imperial relics of immense historical value over the years. Osenat, in Fontainebleau, France, put Napoleon’s famous hat for sale. It brought 1,884,000 € (about $2.1 million), but also a garland’s small gold leaf, with which the emperor crowned himself at Notre Dame in 1805, claimed a final price of 625,000 € ($703,656). In many cases, buyers prefer to remain nameless.
In July 2019, Osenat auctioned a precious relic that belonged to emperor’s room valet or valet de chambre Louis Constant Wairy, called Constant. It is a lock of the emperor’s hair framed together with an accompanying letter – dated 1811 and registered Le Garde robe de l’empereur – in which Constant gave the precious gift to the Parisian hairdresser Barthélemy Michalon.
The lock of hair was taken from Napoleon while he was still alive, and this is an important detail as the emperor did not love those who tried to gather his intimate items. However, during the Saint Helena exile, the desire to retrieve objects belonging to him became an obsession for his nearby staff officers. After his death on May 5, 1821, Louis Joseph Marchand (his valet in Longwood House) and the Grand Maréchal du Palais Henri-Gatien Bertrand took hair from Napoleon’s body. Even his memorialist Emmanuel de Las Cases obtained by sheer luck, a precious imperial hair tuft which fell at his feet during Napoleon’s toilet session.
Among other items sold by the well-known auction house of Fontainebleau, there is a beautiful fauteuil or chair, belonging to the emperor, which sold for 500,000 € ($562,904). Behind the sale of similar objects, there is outstanding research work carried out by historians and experts in the various arts. For example, Christie’s judged the same chair as an artifact assembled after the first empire, but thanks to a careful study carried out by the expert Marie de La Chevardière, the fauteuil has been classified as authentic.
Napoleonic era book collectors are also dynamic, especially among those looking for first editions or fine imperial binding. One of the rarest books among military publications is “Essai sur le maniement de la lance,” published in 1811 by the 1st Regiment of Polish Lancers Commander Corvin Krasinski. Another one is the famous “Relation de la Bataille de Marengo” by Marechal Alexandre Berthier, published in 1805 in a folio deluxe edition and limited to a few dozen specimens, reserved for the empire’s Marechals.