Napoleon's bicorn

Napoleon's bicorn
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The fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte knows no limits. More than two hundred years after his death, a bicorn hat of the French emperor, made of black felt and a cockade attached to the colors of the flag, was acquired this Sunday for almost two million euros at an auction held in Fontainebleau, 70 kilometers north. south of Paris and a few steps from the lavish chateau which was one of the residences of the famous Corsican.

“Finished and no regrets!” (it's over and no regrets), Jean-Pierre Osenat always exclaimed, like a ritual, before hitting the gavel and awarding each of the 160 pieces auctioned. Number 42 was the most anticipated: Napoleon's classic two-cornered hat. It was initially offered for 600,000 euros, but the figure began to rise quickly, reaching 1.5 million. To this amount must be added the 28.8% commission for the house Osenat who set up the auction. The total price therefore amounted to 1,932,000 euros, an absolute record.

Among the objects sold include a toiletry bag, a shirt and the last wills dictated on the island of Saint Helena

The buyer – or his agent – ​​was very serious, a little nervous and only bid on the hat. He was accompanied by two other people. After making the purchase, the three got up and left the room at full speed. Someone said he was an Italian collector. The house Osenat, faithful to the duty of discretion, did not confirm it. In 2014, a South Korean industrialist bought a similar hat for 1,884,000 euros, and he didn't care if it was known. That cocked hat came from the reigning family in Monaco.

It was undoubtedly a great day for the auctioneer Osenat, a veteran of the trade, with expertise sense of humor and distinction. “Napoleon's hat is the image of the emperor throughout the world,” he declared to The vanguard –. He was a great communicator. He wore his bicorn hat backwards (“in battle”, parallel to his back and not perpendicular, like most officers) so that everyone would recognize him. Five hundred meters away they could already see it.”

–What moves someone to buy a piece like this?

–To possess Napoleon's hat is to touch the emperor. Of course, paying two million euros may seem crazy, but you are not buying a hat, you are buying the symbolism of those 15 years that changed the world, whether you love Napoleon or not. Some reproach him for many things, others idolize him. It is said that the best-known figures in history are Christ, the Beatles and Napoleon.

Yesterday, part of the collection of more than a thousand objects of businessman and patron Jean-Louis Noisiez, founder of the multinational cleaning company GSF, who died in 2022, was auctioned. His family had never seen his treasure, which he kept in a basement. “It was his secret garden,” Osenat commented.

In addition to the bicorn hat, high sums were paid for other unique pieces: 154,550 euros for the emperor's campaign toiletry bag, which included scissors and nail files; 9,000 for a lock of his hair framed in a painting and with a medallion; 8,400 for a small ivory case with dental hygiene utensils.

Free entry and historical morbidity

The auctioned objects were exhibited for several days, with free entry. Those who were more historically morbid were even able to touch Napoleon's shirt, which was shown without protection. In the image above, the auctioneer Jean-Pierre Osenat next to the bicorn hat.

Other objects that aroused a lot of interest were a bronze eagle that adorned the ship The ocean purchased for 130,000 euros, a shirt, which cost 59,000, and the last wills dictated to an assistant during captivity on the island of Saint Helena, for which 123,600 euros were paid. Faced with these figures, the price for a handkerchief that Napoleon, already very ill, used shortly before his death seems almost modest: 22,000 euros.

All of these Napoleonic antiques have been certified for their authenticity by experts. His career is known. The bicorn hat originally came from Colonel Pierre Baillon, responsible for Napoleon's wardrobe. The emperor once had 120. About twenty are preserved, most of them in museums. The cockade was the same one he wore on March 1, 1815 aboard L'Inconstant when he returned from exile on the island of Elba and, euphoric, glimpsed the French coast at the height of Cape Antibes. Eleven months earlier he had said goodbye to France, in a very emotional way, precisely from the splendid horseshoe-shaped staircase at the entrance to the Fontainebleau palace. The place was baptized from then on as “the courtyard of goodbyes.”

Napoleon, who did not lack self-esteem, perhaps would not be surprised to learn that, two centuries after his death, his bicorn hats are worth a fortune. The legend does not die out.

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