Unexpected treasures found at the bottom of a box of miscellaneous historical autographs sold at auction included rare Napoléon documents
This essay is excerpted from Nathan Raab’s The Hunt for History, published by Scribner and reprinted here by permission.
Each day, we’re contacted by at least twenty people looking to sell us their historical treasures. Distinguishing the forged from the authentic, the important from the mundane—that is a great deal of what we do. Learning to spot the diamond in the rough is a skill learned over decades and put to the test each day in a multitude of ways. I came to this skill last, and it still tests me. The key lesson from my father was to always pay attention, examine everything. Take nothing for granted. The greatest gem can be buried under a mountain of rock; and likewise, many are taken in by fool’s gold. It shines like the real thing but it’s not.
To put it another way, could you recognize a gem if it was sitting in front of you? These things don’t come to us with a sign around them that reads this is important. We have to hunt, then find, and lastly understand and recognize. With five or even two things in front of you, could you pick the more valuable? True finds are often in plain sight but unlabeled and raw.
In a large auction with many lots, some of which have many items, don’t assume that the auction house has necessarily highlighted the most important items in its catalog. Don’t assume the descriptions of each of the lots is complete and accurate. Perhaps you see something in a piece the auction house doesn’t. Hidden gems may well be found.
A few years ago, Christie’s was selling the estate of a major collector who’d recently died. To judge by the catalog, he’d primarily been a collector of American documents. Half of the few hundred lots were rare books. There were some beautiful pieces—a great George Washington address to Congress; another document signed by Henry VIII, a rare and interesting piece. Some relatively minor items were also being sold in individual lots: I recall a land grant filed by Thomas Jefferson, for example. These land grants, while having some value, were signed by the thousands, offering land to Americans seeking to conquer the frontier and build their homes in the American west. Many of the recipients were veterans of the Revolution, and they received their land for free. These grants are not unique. They’re a more affordable way to own Jefferson’s signature.
Christie’s divided the material into two auctions because of the sheer quantity, and at the first auction we bought a few items, among them the Washington address, but this first auction turned out be to the appetizer. The second would offer the main course. Among the individual offerings, grouped into single lots, were “group lots,” where the auction house has decided that the individual pieces aren’t sufficiently important to stand on their own and are, therefore, grouped together in one large lot. These latter were sorted geographically—European-related material, American-related material. They read in the catalog as afterthoughts in the mind of the salesman, like the baby’s breath in a bouquet of five dozen roses. But they can be much more.
After looking through the auction catalog, I contacted the specialist at Christie’s and asked about these group lots. What was in them? Did he have any more information about them? So much miscellany was in these lots, he explained, he couldn’t possibly describe it all in any detail. If I was interested, I should come to New York and look for myself. (Generally speaking, the auction companies make all the lots available for viewing before the auction takes place.)
And so that’s what we did. Karen, my father, and I went to New York, to Christie’s familiar midtown offices.
It was the day before the auction (the second and final auction of this large collection), and the viewing room was crowded. Long glass cases sat alongside rickety wooden tables, the former containing the more valuable pieces and the latter housing the larger lots. The high-profile lots were getting the most attention: this was a bidder’s opportunity to take a close look at that Washington or Jefferson document. Dozens of boxes contained the group lots that we wanted to look at. So sitting next to the document signed by Henry VIII, offered as a single lot and gathering much attention, were these lots with minimal descriptions. The individual lots were hung dramatically on the wall, well lit, with that light shining on the gilded frames that had been put together decades before. Those documents penned by Washington, Jefferson, King Henry, and others were displayed, but the large group lots sat in nondescript blue archival boxes stored in glass cases. One you could easily see and the other required a special request.
We decided to divide and conquer. My dad and Karen would focus on the English-language material; I’d take on the European material. I’d studied abroad in France, taught myself Spanish and Italian, and spent a year after college working for the AP wire service in Rome, so I speak and read all three languages. This would turn out to be a crucial advantage. Moreover, I had studied paleography, the study of writing, for a few months in Rome, so I was comfortable reading the script from different eras, as the style of forming letters and words evolved over time.
I saw immediately that the catalog description had left many things out. It listed just nine or so pieces. Among them was an uncommon early document from the wicked King George III appointing his royal representative to a prominent position in colonial New York City. This was before American independence, when the king[NR2] could still stock American commercial committees with his own men. Valuable, sure, but nothing groundbreaking. At nine pieces, I expected a manila file folder, something small enough to sort through in minutes. I would then move on to help my dad and Karen with the American lots, where we thought the real meat and potatoes were. But here I was confronted with three large boxes, containing dozens and dozens of documents. I looked closer at the description. It did note that there were 48 pieces, I saw. This was not just one file folder. It was several, jammed into a box that could barely contain the history. The documents were literally overflowing the boxes, way too large to fit into the allotted space. Presumably, they listed the more important pieces.
The first piece I pulled out blew my mind. The letter was written by the doomed King Louis XVI of France, in April of 1792, as the walls of the French Revolution closed in around him, addressed to the king of England. I recognized the paper and the script and the signature was distinct. This was entirely in Louis’s hand. “I thank you that at a time when certain Powers have come together against France, you have not allied yourself with them. . . . Together we must bring peace to Europe.”
As the noose (I suppose guillotine is more historically accurate) was closing in around him, Louis had sent this letter to be hand delivered to George III via a secret mission, with a simple proposition: our two countries, long enemies, should now become allies. His hope with this was to draw the English into the action, assuming that if they were involved as allies, they would protect him. Nothing came of this clever statecraft; Louis XVI was guillotined the next year, in 1793.
This powerful letter, written entirely in French, at a turning point in history, from the King of France to the King of England, as the revolution raged all around Louis, was sitting loose at the bottom of a box with no identifying notes or catalog entries, untranslated, a document of incredible importance for Western Europe. My God, what else is in this box?
As I looked further, I found one royal treasure after the next. Here was an ornate manuscript signed by Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette—together. The two great doomed monarchs on one sheet. The catalog had described one document from George III relating to New York City. But I found another more important item: an invitation to his coronation in 1761 from King George III to a prominent supporter. This was the last coronation of a king to preside as monarch over America. There was also a letter from George VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury, announcing the engagement of his daughter, the current queen, Elizabeth, in 1947. George wrote, “My father set before us and my family a high standard of duty. I am sure that our daughter will always keep King George’s lofty ideals before her and endeavor to follow his example.” She reigns still. The finds continued. Here was a document signed by Catherine the Great of Russia, which I couldn’t read (I don’t speak Russian), but I could see who’d signed it.
Here was a certificate for a young couple’s marriage, signed by Napoléon and his wife Joséphine in their official capacity as emperor and empress of France. During the era of Louis XIV and his successors, the monarchs would sign the marriage contracts of important and well-connected people. Napoléon, who styled himself as a supermonarch, revived this practice, and if you were one of his officers—as this man was—Napoléon and his wife would sign your wedding documents as witnesses.
But most striking, with the possible exception of the letter sent by King Louis of France to King George of England, were the documents from the end of Napoléon’s life: a group of letters from the man watching over Napoléon in his exile on the island of St. Helena, announcing his illness and death and describing it in great detail.
More than any other man of the nineteenth century, Napoléon captured the world’s attention. Some Americans excoriated him, others idolized him. Continental Europe, while the English for a time looked on, waged violent war against him. Napoléon was the people’s emperor, an original populist, a man born nowhere near Paris with an imperfect grasp of the French language.
His men fought for him, died for him. He called out to them, “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”
Napoléon had a keen sense of history and his place in it. In Egypt, at the feet of the monuments, he said to his troops, “From the tops of those pyramids, forty centuries look down on you.” He knew the power of his appeal, his legacy. “A great reputation is a great noise: the more there is made, the farther off it is heard. Laws, institutions, monuments, nations, all fall; but the noise continues and resounds in after ages.”
In his great opus, Representative Men, Ralph Waldo Emerson described Napoléon this way: “Every one of the million readers of anecdotes or memoirs or lives of Napoléon delights in the page, because he studies in it his own history.”
By 1814, Napoléon had been exiled to Elba, then escaped to regain power. But he’d famously lost at the Battle of Waterloo to the allied forces led by the Duke of Wellington. This was the last of the so-called Napoleonic Wars. Napoléon was banished to St. Helena, more than a thousand miles off the coast of western Africa.
Even in defeat, he claimed the mantle of victory: “They charge me with the commission of great crimes: men of my stamp do not commit crimes. Nothing has been more simple than my elevation; ’tis vain to ascribe it to intrigue or crime. . . . I have always marched with the opinion of the masses and with events.” His death in 1821 shook the world as much as his life.
The first letter in the group was from a British admiral stationed on the island, Robert Lambert, who first reported that Napoléon was ill, in a communication to his superior:
Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that General Buonaparte has been attacked with a dangerous illness which is expected by the medical attendants to prove fatal. In the event of his demise I shall immediately dispatch a vessel to England with the intelligence.
This was followed, five days later, by the announcement of his death:
Sir, I have to acquaint you for their Lordships’ information that General Buonaparte departed this life at a little before six P.M. on Saturday the 5th Instant. My letter No. 9 of the 2nd Inst, by the Bristol Merchant Ship will have apprized you of his dangerous illness. On that day a consultation was held, in which, by the Governor’s desire Dr. Mitchell, Surgeon of the Vigo, joined. He continued in attendance until the demise, and afterwards assisted at the opening of the body, the report of which, signed by all the medical attendants, I enclose. From the importance of this event I have judged it proper to confide my dispatches to Captain Henry, the Senior Commander on the Station, who has visited the body with me, and can give their Lordships any further details required. I have sent him in the Heron, that vessel being the fastest Sailer, and the next for relief; and I trust these measures will have their Lordships’ approbation.
The autopsy report, entitled “Report of Appearances on Dissection of the Body of Napoleon Bonaparte,” was also part of this group of documents. This detailed, even gruesome account of Napoléon’s organs and viscera was written on May 6, 1821:
On a superficial view the body appeared very fat which state was confirmed by the first incision down its centre where the fat was upwards of one inch and a half over the abdomen. On cutting through the cartilages of the ribs and exposing the cavity of the throat a trifling adhesion of the left pleura was found to the pleura costalis. About three ounces of reddish fluid were contained in the left cavity and nearly eight ounces in the right. The lungs were quite sound. The pericardium was natural and contained about an ounce of fluid. The heart was of the natural size but thickly covered with fat…
The former despot was pronounced dead, stricken, the doctor said, by cancer of the stomach. Napoléon’s death has fascinated historians ever since. High levels of arsenic in hair samples taken during his life fueled speculation that he was poisoned—speculation that continues to this day.
I like to think of the path these documents take in their own lives, their own existences as pieces of history. So let’s look at these Napoléon documents relating to his death. He died on St. Helena, an isolated island sitting off the coast of Africa, far from most points of civilization. From there, the documents journeyed thousands of miles to London, where they informed the Western[NR7] world of the death of Bonaparte. From there, they traveled thousands of miles more to the room in which I was sitting, unearthed at the bottom of a pile of papers.
None of these documents was in the description of this lot. It simply offered to provide a list to those who wanted more information. I hoped that no one else would notice what I’d found.
I called my dad over and said, “This is the lot. I don’t know what you’re looking at, but this is the lot. We need to get this.”
In cases such as these we must play our cards close to our chest. We went home and had a long conversation about what I’d seen and what it was worth. We expected (and feared) the lot would go much higher than the auction estimate.
We were right. I was not the only one who saw something in that lot. The next day Karen and I walked through the same doors and down the same hallway and sat in the middle of the auction room, watching the auctioneer on his platform, the large screen above depicting the lots and their prices as they came up for bidding.
Christie’s had estimated our lot at a ridiculously low sum of $6,000-$8,000. To get this lot for that price would be too good to be true. In the room were several dozen serious collectors, agents, and a few dealers with modest practices—the usual suspects, most of whom I knew. The bidding on the European lot started low and stayed there initially. Only two or three of us in the room were interested, with one other bidder on the telephone.
It seemed as if the bidding were going to go to about $14,000, which would have been absolutely incredible, but then it went higher. And higher. My heartbeat quickened in a mixture of excitement and irritation as I focused on the one other person still bidding, who was on the phone. The auction had become a duel between the phone bidder and me.
Once we got past $30,000, then $40,000, people began looking around, saying, “What did we miss in this lot? Why are these two people bidding it up so high?” They’d read the description and took it as complete, more or less.
Karen began nudging me—when was I going to stop? When we crossed $50,000, Karen said, “You really need to stop.” And I thought, I really think this lot is worth it. We will make money from this lot.
The person on the phone also understood the value of these documents. The drumbeat of the auctioneer quickened as the price rose higher and higher. We settled into a back and forth as each bid was mirrored by a bid $2,500 higher, then $5,000 higher as the price went up. The auctioneer appeared equally confused as neither of the bidders showed any sign of slowing. I looked ahead, raised my hand intently. I believed in this group, had read the lots in their original languages, and wanted it. The room got warmer, then hot. I finally got the documents for $68,750, the most expensive lot sold at the Christie’s auction that day.
I remember taking Amtrak home that evening, carrying the documents in a heavy box. It was a huge lot, a massive group. The experience drove home to me that people miss things. Certainly, speaking a few European languages helped me spot the value of these documents. But more than that was the willingness to be diligent, patient, and focused—the cultivation of those qualities reaps the greatest rewards.
In this case, I was able to bring my knowledge to bear. I’m not sure my father or Karen would have seen what I saw in that lot. But they backed me 100 percent in my decision to go for it, and it paid off. We more than made our money back selling the documents we bought that day—the announcement of Napoléon’s death alone brought in close to what I paid for the entire box and more than that Henry VIII document that had sparked so much interest in the sale originally.