On Sunday, an unidentified buyer put down 1.9 million euros — or about $2.1 million — for one of them, largely surpassing its estimated high value of 800,000 euros. The cracked black beaver felt hat sold by the Osenat auction house in Fontainebleau is one of approximately 20 that remain from Napoleon’s collection.
The hat sold on Sunday was worn by Napoleon around 1810 as he established French hegemony over much of continental Europe.
Before reaching the auction, it went through many hands. Napoleon’s hat was first recovered by his quartermaster, Col. Pierre Baillon, who kept it in his family until the end of the 19th century. It was later acquired by antique collectors and displayed at a museum until it came under the possession of Jean-Louis Noisiez, a French businessman who died last year. Over his lifetime, Noisiez acquired a large array of Napoleonic memorabilia, including swords, a long-sleeve shirt and an emblazoned handkerchief that the emperor used while he was sick — all of which are being sold by the auction house.
Yet the bicorne hat was by far the pièce de résistance, as the French would say.
“Just by itself, this one hat is carrying and symbolizing the whole [Napoleonic] history of 15 years that revolutionized France and changed the world,” auctioneer Jean-Pierre Osenat said in French while promoting the auction.
Napoleon’s legacy is highly polarizing. The man who brought glory to France, reshaped Europe and enacted a legal framework that reverberated across the world has been hailed as a military genius and as “history on horseback” by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. At the same time, he’s also been branded as a cruel megalomaniac who plunged Europe into deadly chaos.
But if there’s something everyone can agree on, it’s that Napoleon’s bicorne hats were a statement.
The bicorne hat emerged in the late 18th century as an evolution of the tricorn, a triangle-shaped hat that was popular with King Louis XIV of France and George Washington. For dressier occasions, the bicorne hat was designed to be carried under the arms like a purse and didn’t touch the wearer’s head at all. Among troops, the half-moon-shaped hat was worn with the two corners facing the front and back, so as not to hinder their ability to carry a bayonet.
But Napoleon decided to wear his bicorne hat with the corners side to side, a style known as “en bataille,” or in battle. The look would become instantly recognizable both on the battlefield and in the paintings showcasing his exploits.
According to the Fondation Napoleon, a French nonprofit organization that supports the preservation of Napoleonic heritage, the emperor was not only faithful to his hat, but also to his hatter: Poupard, a boutique in a former French royal palace.
“Napoleon always had with him a set of twelve hats,” the nonprofit added.
It was an obsession Napoleon took to the grave. In 1821, he was buried on Saint Helena Island, where he had been exiled since 1815. In 1840, his remains were transferred to the Hôtel National des Invalides in Paris, where he is buried in his colonel’s uniform, his sash of the Légion d’Honneur and a bicorne hat that rests on his legs.
Since then, the hat Napoleon was known to both throw to the floor in fits of anger and carry valiantly into battle has become the embodiment of the tragic hero.
Economic biography: “The events in the life of Napoleon in eight hats”. Painting by Charles Auguste, Baron De Steuben (1788 1856). pic.twitter.com/E73agzeFUo
— Rembrandt’s R👀m 🖌 (@RembrandtsRoom) February 10, 2017
In 1826, artist Charles de Steuben set forth to memorialize Napoleon’s life in a painting. Unlike other pieces, de Steuben’s work has no trace of dead bodies, battling troops or blazing guns — instead, three rows with eight bicorne hats do all the talking.
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