A Bicorne hat believed to have been worn by Napoleon Bonaparte Attributed to Poupart & Cie, Paris, circa 1806-07

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Lot 70
A Bicorne hat believed to have been worn by Napoleon Bonaparte
Attributed to Poupart & Cie, Paris, circa 1806-07

Sold for £ 200,250 (US$ 270,112) inc. premium
A Bicorne hat believed to have been worn by Napoleon Bonaparte
Attributed to Poupart & Cie, Paris, circa 1806-07
Of black beaver felt with black silk lining, the rounded crown between a tall arched flat section to the rear and a shorter curved arched section to the front, the crown with two pierced holes to the crown and two button holes to the front section, together with a detached black silk braid with gilded thread, inscribed to the interior ORIGINAL Napoleon I in red ink, circumference 59cm, width 47.5cm, height 24.5cm, stamped marks for Leopold Verch, Charlottenburg, Berlin


  • Provenance:
    Leopold Verch, Charlottenburg, Berlin
    Berliner Auktionhaus, December 2017, sale 110, lot 2052
    A private Scottish collection

    "On the field of battle, his hat is worth forty thousand men!" remarked the Duke of Wellington. In history there are few significant figures who can easily be recognised by their hat. With the bicorne shape - or chapeau française - such a hat has become the classic image associated with Napoleon Bonaparte. Fondly known as his "petite chapeau", unlike the customary usage of bicornes, which were worn with their points facing front to back (fore and aft) or at an angle (semi athwart). Napoleon wore his fully athwart with the points facing shoulder to shoulder. By contrast with his Marshals and other General officers whose bicornes were adorned with plumages of ostrich over gold and silver lacework, Napoleon's bicornes bore only a small circular tricolour cockade of red, white and blue, superimposed with a black ribbon in 'V' formation held in place by a small black cloth button. This seemingly insignificant decoration being set at an angle to the front right face of the bicorne.

    Differing only slightly in proportion, he wore the same model throughout the 15 years of the Empire. Its stark simplicity instantly distinguishing him from those grandly accoutred figures around him, it also made an important political statement. During his reign, he used about 120 of them, most of which manufactured by Poupart & Cie « Chapelier, costumier et passementier de l'Empereur et des Princes » whose shop was located at the Palais du Tribunal, now the Palais Royal. It is understood that Napoleon constantly had 12 operational hats, each with a lifetime of about 3 years with several believed to have been created each year.

    The present beaver felt hat was purchased as a curiosity from a military auction held by in Berlin in December 2017 with no published provenance. It was apparently consigned to the saleroom by an elderly widow as part of a house clearance. Based on the rectangular red ink stamp bearing the name Verch, it was assumed that it had been made in the 20th century for the theatre. The material of the hat however has since been confirmed as being pure beaver felt, a rare and expensive material. This is a hat of the highest quality. Further examination of the stamp revealed the inscription "Original Napoleon 1". Another larger red ink stamp inscription in capital letters was found higher up inside the bicorne which read ORIGINAL NAPOLEON 1.

    Recognising that the hat was of early 19th century manufacture, sharing all the characteristics of Napoleon's bicornes, the owner contacted the Musée de l' Armée in Paris to compare the present lot against the six provenanced bicornes owned by Napoleon, on display at the museum. The bicorne was examined and bore a striking resemblance to each of these hats and matched the precise inner circumference dimensions of the hats made by Poupard for the Emperor.

    A series of fragments of cotton threads running around the interior of the brim would originally have been the stitches which secured a leather sweatband, likely to have been made of shellac-polished leather as seen on the existing sweatband in an example, owned by Napoleon, at the Musée Napoléon in Brienne. It is known that Napoleon found the leather sweatbands uncomfortable and had them removed from his early hats, leaving the cotton ends of the remaining stitches in the felt brim. These tiny fragments in the present example show the stitches have been deliberately cut, not torn.

    The earlier examples bore the inner leather sweatband with an upper interior cap of fine black silk and rag paper. The black silk lining of the present hat matches that on the hat in the Musée Napoléon. His later bicornes were fully lined with a thinly padded greenish brown silk lining, eliminating the need for a sweatband. They vary slightly in form, but all bear the same distinctly recognisable shape. The dimensions of the current example - head circumference 59cm, width 47.5cm, height 24.5cm - are distinctly similar to all the known bicorne hats with secured provenance that belonged to the Emperor.

    A large letter 'N' inscribed in white, located in the top of the interior (between the crown and the silk lining), was discovered when the lining was removed for inspection. In addition, an impressed 'N' located beneath Verch's rectangular printed ink stamp was identified under UV light.

    Hats made by the Verch firm generally have an elaborate rectangular silk label bearing the company name and address stitched to the interior. The use of a printed mark together with the inscription 'Original Napoleon 1' is unusual and with the other inscriptions suggest personal inventory stamps. This may indicate that the bicorne was from the Verch private collection of originals. It would have been deliberately identified as such to avoid the item being used inadvertently for other purposes. A detached black silk ribbon braid with gilt decoration, dating to the early 19th century and which would have held a cockade, was discovered between the crown and the front peak.
    The hat maker, costumier and collector, Leopold Verch, born in 1845, established a theatrical costume business in Charlottenburg, near Berlin in the early 1880s. This business eventually became the premier theatrical and later film industry costumier in Germany employing 250 workers. Verch became the Purveyor for the Prussian Royal Court in Berlin and was well known in Europe and Great Britain. He travelled around Europe, avidly collecting original items to reproduce whilst also visiting major art galleries, sketching hats, shoes, and fabric patterns for inspiration. His son of the same name (1882-1951) was the successor in the business. The only surviving granddaughter of the younger Verch, Beatrice Huber, has confirmed that her family once possessed a large private collection of original items gathered by both her great grandfather and grandfather. Sadly, their large collection of 2000 originals, the archives and stock of the company in Charlottenburg are understood to have been destroyed during the Second World War.

    Coincidentally, situated also in Charlottenburg at the time of Napoleon was Charlottenburg Palace, the home of King Frederick lll and Louise Queen consort. On 14 October 1806, in the separate battles of Jena and Auerstädt, the Prussians were soundly defeated. On 27 October the Emperor marched his triumphant army into Berlin and took up residence in the palace. The present hat may have been one of those made for that campaign in 1806.

    The hat bears two small holes which have been made by the apparent use of a pointed object having been carefully forced through between the hat and the lining, only splitting the inner rag paper but not piercing the silk lining. These holes are distinctly T shaped in section, one being smaller than the other, indicating that the skewer was tapered. Beneath these holes are slight creases, made by the weight of something having been left there for a great deal of time. Most likely a triple edged bayonet as used during the period. It was not uncommon to find headwear with holes of a similar type which at one time held the blade which skewered them to the wall. These "captive" helmets were usually hung around the walls in Officers' casinos as trophies. It is therefore possible that the present lot was held as a prize in one of these Casinos until the forced disarmament of the German army after the First World War, when, with the closure of the Casinos, it was acquired by the younger Verch.
    Napoleon cultivated his 'brand' and his hat was essential to sustaining it, so that it ceased to be looked upon as a part of his dress but eventually the embodiment of himself. This becomes apparent when we hear of how most of the existing bicornes were originally acquired. They were usually given to someone close or left by him as a memento.

    From 1800 to 1812 it is on record that Napoleon was supplied with approximately 120 hats. Today, between 20 and 30 bicornes have been authenticated and are in museums and private collections, most notably in the Musée Napoléon in Brienne le Château, the Musée de l'Armée in Paris, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Russian Campaign, 1812), the Berlin Historisches Museum (worn at Waterloo, 1815) and in the private collections of Bruno Ledoux (illustrated Napoleon: A Private View, Treasures from the Collection of Bruno Ledoux, p.147) and Moët et Chandon, especially. The earliest is that from the Battle of Marengo, 1800.
    Recent examples sold at auction include that from the Collection Napoleonienne du Palais Princier de Monaco, Osenat, Fontainebleau, 16 November 2014, lot 89;
    Christie's, London, 9 July 2015, lot 102 (worn at the Battle of Eylau and Friedland, 1807) which was subsequently sold at Sotheby's Paris, 22 September 2021, lot 33, and another at De Baecque et Associés, Lyon, June 2018 (worn at Waterloo).

    We are grateful to Anne-Marie Benson for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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