The bicorne hat is believed to have been worn by Bonaparte around 1810, or as early as 1806, while he was in the midst of conquering much of continental Europe. At this point, Bonaparte had already crowned himself Emperor of France.
The black beaver felt hat was listed with an approximate value of 600,000 to 800,000 euros (C$900,000 to 1.2 million) but ended up being sold for a bid of 1.5 million euros (CAD$2.2 million). With an additional 28.8 per cent commission to the auction house, the total bill ended up at 1.9 million euros. The buyer’s identity was not released.
The signature broad, black hat is one of just a handful to survive to the modern day.
“There’s about 20 left that are authentic and about 15 of them are kept in museums, so there’s about four or five that are in collectors’ hands,” said Jean-Pierre Osenat, head of the Osenat auction house, who handled the sale.
“For people who are into Napoleonic souvenirs, it’s the holy grail to have a hat,” he added.
While other officers customarily wore their bicorne hats with the wings facing front to back, Napoleon wore his with the ends pointing toward his shoulders. The style — known as “en bataille,” or in battle — made it easier for his troops to spot their leader in combat.
The hat that sold at auction also came adorned with a tri-colour cockade, a rosette of white, blue, and red ribbons, that has a remarkable story.
It’s believed the cockade was added to Bonaparte’s hat by the military man himself during his escape from exile on the island of Elba. The Osenat auction house writes that Bonaparte put the cockade on his hat on board the warship Inconstant on March 1, 1815, when he came in sight of the French coast at Antibes.
His escape led to a brief return to power before his ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Bonaparte’s valet, Louis-Joseph-Narcisse Marchand, wrote at the time that Napoleon adorned his hat with the cockade in front of the soldiers that accompanied him on the warship, after they had just hoisted the French flag.
“(T)he exaltation was such that the Emperor, who wanted to speak, could not say a word. It would be difficult, in fact, to depict the joy, the enthusiasm, the tenderness which manifested itself on the brig; the cheers, the clapping of hands, the stamping of feet were heard so loudly that all the batteries in the brig were playing at once. It was delirium,” Marchand wrote in his memoirs.
“We can assume that this cockade also accompanied (Bonaparte) during the flight of the Eagle, the reconquest of his throne, from Golf Juan to Paris,” the Osenat auction house writes.
The cockade was passed down from Prince Jérôme Bonaparte to the Prince of Moscow before it came into the possession of Raoul and Jean Brunon, brothers who were art and history collectors.
The hat was originally in the possession of Col. Pierre Baillon, who was Bonaparte’s quartermaster. It remained in Baillon’s family until the end of the 19th century when it was sold to an antique dealer in Dijon. The hat was also eventually bought by the Brunon brothers.
The hat and cockade together were exhibited in a museum from 1967 until January 2002. The hat and cockade were then bought by Jean Louis Noisiez, an entrepreneur who spent more than half a century assembling his collection of Napoleonic memorabilia, firearms, swords and coins before his death in 2022.
Napoleonic antiques expert Bertrand Malvaux authenticated the hat and cockade’s authenticity.
The sale came days before the release of Ridley Scott’s film Napoleon with Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, which is rekindling interest in the controversial French ruler.
Other history-laden items in the sale of Noisiez’s collection of Napoleonic memorabilia include a silver plate looted from Bonaparte’s carriage after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It also includes a wooden vanity case he owned, with razors, a silver toothbrush, scissors and other personal belongings.
— with files from The Associated Press