June 12, 2014
Below, excerpts from Elaine Sciolino's May 14 New York Times story.
A stained, V-neck cotton night shirt [above] has set off a heated family battle in France.
That's because it was worn by Napoleon Bonaparte during his final hours in May, 1821, in exile on the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. The garment, which is monogrammed in red silk with a three-pointed crown atop the letter N, was preserved by Achille Archambault, the Emperor's faithful servant, along with other personal belongings, including a lock of Napoleon’s hair cut the day of his death and two monogrammed cloth bandages.
Now Archambault's descendants are at odds over these remnants of Napoleon’s final days. Just hours before they were to be auctioned off, with much fanfare, in Fontainebleau last March, one faction won an injunction preventing the sale. They claimed that their ancestor had stipulated in his will that the articles were to be kept in the family, and that Annonciade Martelli, their 83-year-old cousin, who kept them in the family home in Corsica, had no right to sell them.
The stakes — and potential profits — are significant. In the last several years, objects linked to Napoleon have attracted global interest and exorbitant prices at auction.
In 2007, a gold-encrusted sword Napoleon wore into the battle of Marengo in Italy was sold for more than $6.4 million, quadruple its estimated value, by the Osenat auction house. That same year, a letter written by Napoleon to his then-lover Josephine (later the Empress of France) sold at Christie’s in London for $556,000, five times more than had been estimated.
Despite his inglorious end, the French have long been obsessed with Napoleon, lauding him as a brilliant military and diplomatic strategist, alliance-builder, communicator and myth-maker. Every year in June, several hundreds of Napoleon fans from all around the world bring their costumes and horses to Waterloo in present-day Belgium to re-enact his defeat in 1815, from which he never recovered. And every August 15, the residents of Corsica celebrate the anniversary of Napoleon’s birth in Ajaccio, the island’s largest city.
This year, Napoleon-mania is as strong as ever. It is the 200th anniversary of his defeat at the hands of a grand coalition of several European armies; his abdication at Fontainebleau; and his exile to the island of Elba. Earlier this month, 400 enthusiasts dressed as Napoleon-era soldiers re-enacted the emperor’s arrival on the island. The British director Rupert Sanders is working on an epic about Napoleon for Warner Bros. that will portray the Emperor more as a gangster boss than a strategic genius.
"The name of the emperor remains associated with a militarily glorious time that survives as an epic despite his ultimate defeat," said Lionel Jospin, the former prime minister of France, who recently published a book on Napoleon.
June 12, 2014 at 12:01 PM | Permalink