Napoleon Bonaparte’s iconic, black felt, bicorn hat has set an auction record for the most expensive hat ever sold. It was worn when he was in exile on Elba and believed to be one of his 120 original hats, has sold to a South Korean collector for £1.5 million 1.9 million euros ($2.2 million), at an auction outside Paris. The black felted beaver fur hat is one of only 19 examples thought to have survived. The French emperor’s trademark chapeau was sold by Monaco’s Grimaldi family, in an auction to raise funds for a new museum display devoted to the ruling family of Monaco. It was auctioned off for five times its estimated value of between 300,000 and 400,000 euros. The identity of the South Korean buyer is not yet known. During his reign as French emperor — from 1804-1814 and again in 1815 — Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have worn around 120 of the hats. Made by French hatmakers Poupard, Napoleon wore the headgear sideways rather than with points at the front and back — so he could be easily spotted on the battlefield.
Over a thousand other items, mostly French imperial relics were up for sale at Fontainebleau outside of Paris. It is thought that the French government were key bidders in the sale. “The French Defence Ministry has a very bellicose approach to historical items, particularly manuscripts,” said Paris auctioneer Alexandre Giquello, who is co-hosting the sale with Jean-Pierre Osenat, a specialist of the Napoleonic era. Mr Giquello said that because of the risk that the Defence Ministry would confiscate some lots without paying the vendor, he had advised the Grimaldi family to withdraw 30 manuscripts from the auction.
Included in the sale was a painted plate in Sèvres porcelain, from Napoleon’s dinner service used during his final imprisonment on the island of St Helena where he was exiled after being defeated at Waterloo, is estimated at €80,000 to €100,000. Also for sale are dozens of medals, decorative keys, documents, a Russian caviar spoon and a bronze eagle that once perched atop a battle flag, complete with bullet holes. And an elaborate burr elm cradle presented to Napoleon’s adopted step-daughter Stéphanie de Beauharnais is to be auctioned for €250,000 to €350,000. Other personal mementoes include a shirt, gloves and stockings worn by the Emperor, as well as drinking cups.
This iconic collection of memorabilia, was put together by Louis II until his death in 1949, is expected to garner an intense interest from collectors and museums from all over the world. Jean-Pierre Osenat, head of the auction house in Fontainbleau, said: “It is an exceptional collection.”It was gathered at the beginning of past century by a passionate man, the prince Louis II. I think it is the first time that a real genuine collection is going under the hammer. We will never see such a collection ever. Mr Osenat said that the particularity of the Grimaldi collection was that it was put together by a single person over a long period. Louis II, who served as a general in the First World War and was known as the “soldier prince” took an interest in Napoleon because of a shared military background.
Whether or not an export licence will be issued for the lot, remains to be be seen. In the past the French government has blocked the export of important historical items.