The Enduring Magnetism of the Doomed French Emperor
Figure 1: Lot 343, “Napoleon Crowned as Emperor,” from (24) Hand Colored Napoleonic Lotto or Bingo Cards from the 19th century, estimated at $1,000 - $1,400, from Oakridge Auction Gallery's Around the World in 80+ Lots auction, October 18, 2019.
Having just recently watched – not for the first time – the BBC two-part TV edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars have been much on my mind. It seems all the more fitting, then, for me to compose a short blog post on some of the Napoleon-related items in our upcoming Around the World in 80+ Lots auction.
This auction has no fewer than three lots related to that rather infamous, and famously short, Corsican, whose meteoric rise in French politics following the end of the Terror of the French Revolution culminated with his coronation as the Emperor of France, and a military campaign across Europe that was ultimately defeated by the Russian Winter and the decimation of his Grande Armée, which had conscripted individuals from nations across Europe.
Figure 2: Lot 341, Signed Bonaparte Letter, 19th Century, estimated at $1,000 - $1,500, from Oakridge Auction Gallery's Around the World in 80+ Lots auction, October 18, 2019.
The first lot is a Signed Bonaparte Letter, possibly from around 1810, believed to have been written by Joseph Bonaparte, brother to the more famous Napoleon and short-lived King of Spain. Short and not entirely legible, the missive appears to be a cross between congratulatory and thank-you note, to an unidentified Monsieur. In the upper right corner, the place of writing is given as Monfontaine, or Morfontaine, the date being the 3rd of April.
Following this very valuable scrap of history are two lots composed of items from the collection of an American collector of Napoleonic ephemera in the late 19th and 20th centuries, William J. Latta, including several catalogs of his collection and a deck of 24 hand-colored Napoleonic lotto or bingo cards which depict scenes from the Napoleonic Wars. The fairly large lotto cards – each of which measures 4 7/8 inches by 8 3/16 inches – are detailed in their header-image, but also printed with a fair amount of text, in French, narrating the history of Napoleon’s life and the Napoleonic Wars. Having spent an afternoon reading through them, I would be the first to admit that these cards are delightful beyond their imagery, particularly for the unashamed history buff. A historical piece of history telling another piece of history, so to speak – in full color.
Figure 3: Lot 343, (24) Hand Colored Napoleonic Lotto or Bingo Cards from the 19th century, estimated at $1,000 - $1,400, from Oakridge Auction Gallery's Around the World in 80+ Lots auction, October 18, 2019.
The sale of these three lots offers an opportunity to consider what makes Napoleon and the ephemera related to him so magnetic even two hundred years after his death – the bicentennial of which will be in 2021. He was born in 1769 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which at that time had only recently been transferred from Genoese (Italian) sovereignty to French rule. He was educated in France, the final portion of his education at a military academy, and later became involved with the Jacobin party, which proved the dominant force behind the French Revolution. As part of the Revolutionary army, he waged war with France’s neighboring nations, including Austria and Italy; he also became involved in the governments immediately following the Terror, including the Directoire. The coup which he helped to orchestrate in 1799 overthrew the Directoire and established a three-person consulate, which he then also overthrew in 1804 by declaring himself the Emperor of France.
For the next decade, he waged territorial wars across Europe, forever altering many political boundaries – my own German ancestry stems from a region much affected by the Napoleonic Wars, namely the Rhineland. The French conquered the Rheinland in 1794 and ruled there until 1814, following Napoleon’s deposition. The reorganization of many small principalities and city-states into the Confederacy of the Rhine was accompanied with comprehensive legal changes, which were maintained even after sovereignty of the region passed to the Prussians following the Napoleonic Wars.
At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon was all but the ruler of half the European continent. The end of his expansion has often been attributed to a force that later also held up the advance of Nazi Germany – the Russian Winter. Invading Russia, Napoleon, who was himself with the invasion force, found the Russians steadily retreating and destroying the countryside as they went. Eventually, the savage winter, cutting off the French and allied supply trains, forced the Grande Armée to retreat and be picked off by guerilla Cossacks and others who harried the retreating soldiers.
That part of the Napoleonic Wars is well described in War and Peace, albeit from the perspective of several Russian aristocrats, some of whom belong to the Russian fighting forces. In part of its literary criticism on the novel, the study-assistance site Shmoop points out that “[b]ack in Tolstoy's day, Napoleon was thought of as just about the world's greatest general. That made the Russian army's victory over the invading French truly extraordinary.” Tolstoy’s novel, however, humanizes the great general and makes him a character within the novel, open to commentary and criticism.
Given the continuing legacy and magnetism of Napoleon and his ephemera, the ability of Tolstoy to humanize a historic individual who remains somehow larger than life (other than when he is being caricatured for his diminutive physical stature) is astonishing. Looking at the author’s goal from another perspective, his desire to bring Napoleon to scale only reiterates how powerful a figure the latter cut in the imaginations of those who came after him.
So, this October, take advantage of our Around the World in 80+ Lots auction to acquire a small piece of the larger tapestry of Napoleonic history in the form of the Bonaparte letter, 19th century lotto cards, and the collection catalogues of another avid Napoleonic collector. What better way to acknowledge Napoleon’s shadow over history than to hold a piece of that history in one’s own collection?
Figure 4: Lot 343 Full deck of (24) Hand Colored Napoleonic Lotto or Bingo Cards, estimated at $1,000 - $1,400, from Oakridge Auction Gallery's Around the World in 80+ Lots auction, October 18, 2019.
 Sabine Graumann, „1794 bis 1815 - Aufbruch in die Moderne. Die "Franzosenzeit," Landesverband Rheinland (LVR). Accessed October 11, 2019. http://www.rheinische-geschichte.lvr.de/Epochen-und-Themen/Epochen/1794-bis-1815---aufbruch-in-die-moderne.-die-%22franzosenzeit%22/DE-2086/lido/57ab23d29508f8.06009224
 “The Rheinland under the French (1794-1813),” Landesverband Rheinland (LVR). Accessed October 11, 2019. http://www.wir-rheinlaender.lvr.de/engl_version/rhineland_french/
 “Napoleon: Character Analysis,” under War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Shmoop University 2019. Accessed October 11, 2019. https://www.shmoop.com/war-and-peace/napoleon.html
About the Author
Katharina Biermann joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in the beginning of 2019, having completed her Master of Letters at the University of Glasgow in the History of Art with a specialization in Dress and Textile Histories. Ms. Biermann developed hands-on expertise of European arts and culture while interning in internationally renowned institutions including the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She remains particularly interested in medieval and 19th-20th century visual and material culture.