Auction Insights with Nigel Kirk
Fit for a King
There were gasps of amazement at The Auction House when from a box emerged this magnificent coat. In a real sense we seemed momentarily to be face to face with a king.
The disembodied presence was that of Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) King of Spain. He was relieved of his coat and much else by the Duke of Wellington’s army at the Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813.
In surprisingly pristine condition, it is a beautifully tailored dark blue three-quarter length velvet garment, as befits its illustrious owner. It is also highly surprising on account of its size. It is well-known that Napoleon wasn’t exactly tall, which gave rise to the name ‘The Little Emperor’. Judging by the coat, Joseph must have been of similar, slight build but has very long arms. Despite that he must have had stamina because with its extensive display of gold braid it is very heavy.
Napoleon was greatly interested in every aspect of military uniform and the French Grande Armee was renowned for its magnificence. The coat’s gilt brass buttons are embossed with martial trophies centred by a pelta shield and the braid is of oak leaf design. Such coats were worn only by the most senior Napoleonic officers but there is no doubt that this was Joseph Bonaparte’s.
Joseph was born on Corsica and first appointed King of Naples and Sicily by Napoleon in 1806. Two years later Napoleon ordered him to abdicate. Joseph was reluctantly crowned King of Spain in Madrid in 1808. He and the occupying French troops were viewed by the Spanish as hated oppressors and Joseph was soon forced to flee northwards. Napoleon ignored his request to return to Italy, despite Joseph writing to point out that “… not a single Spaniard is on my side…”, sending instead reinforcements to shore up Joseph’s unsteady grip on power. He was a classic example of a ‘puppet king’.
There is a full length portrait of Joseph wearing what appears to be this very coat by Robert Lefèvre (1755-1830) in the Swiss National Museum. Lefèvre was a favourite of the Imperial family painting many of those closest to Napoleon.
As a military leader, Joseph did not have the respect of his officers who viewed him as ineffective, knowing that the real power resided in Paris.
By June 1813 Joseph had had enough and hastily decamped from Madrid again, taking with him the longest baggage train in history which got stuck in the streets of Vitoria. Over 100 wagons were crammed with loot, much of it Spanish treasure – art, gold, jewels, fine wines but also much else. It is estimated the present day value of it all is around £100million. And this ‘else’ throws a light on what Joseph considered indispensable, from his silver chamber pot, exotic pets, hundreds of women’s clothes, much of them ‘exotic’, to his many young Spanish mistresses. It was described as a bordello on wheels. Joseph’s horse drawn carriage was discovered to be crammed full with old masters, the canvases rolled up to save space and a huge cache of secret documents. When halted Joseph and his associates escaped because the British soldiers, distracted by what they had found, instantly began to plunder his possessions.
The Duke of Wellington was furious at such behaviour, describing those involved as “the scum of the earth”. The officers joined in the looting as enthusiastically as the common soldiers. There were reports of drunken revelling long into the night, with “many of the officers entertaining the beautiful young Spanish girls”.
The men, after a lengthy campaign and many privations believed such spoils of war were theirs by right.
One drunk British private was spotted running around the scene in the King Joseph’s coat by Second Lieutenant John Nevill (1789-1845) who ordered him to hand it over. Later the 3rd Earl of Abergavenny, the coat has been owned by Nevill’s family ever since. For many years it lay in the attics of Eridge Castle, the family’s grand home near Tunbridge Wells.
There is enormous interest in Napoleonic memorabilia and not just in France. Early last year a single gold laurel leaf from Napoleon’s imperial crown sold for £440,000 and what was said to be the hat he wore at the Battle of Waterloo also went under the hammer. Expected to fetch €30,000-40,000 it went for €280,000. That pales into insignificance at the price fetched by Napoleon’s sword, which made €4.8million.
Napoleon, awe-inspiring military leader and ‘Bogey Man of Europe’ depending on your point of view, encapsulates the romance and aspirations unleashed by the French revolution which ushered in the modern world.
This stunning coat goes on exhibition at Mellors & Kirk next month and will be sold in the Fine Art Sale on 19/20 September, which also has a special feature of Military Medals, Orders and Decorations.
If you splash out the £15,000-20,000 or more and buy it at the Sale this is one garment you won’t be able to send back!
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