Newly Discovered Napoleon Bicorne Hat at Bonhams Napoleon Sale

London – It was around 1799 that Napoleon Bonaparte started to sport his trademark bicorne. Wearing the hat sideways so that he would be instantly identifiable to his soldiers on the battlefield, Napoleon was thereafter rarely portrayed without one ¬– most memorably in Jacques-Louis David's triumphal 1810 painting Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass. A newly discovered bicorne is one of the highlights of Napoleon Bonaparte: The British Sale in London on Wednesday 27 October. It is estimated at £100,000-150,000.

Napoleon's hats were made by Poupart et Cie. of Paris which produced about 120 of them from expensive pure beaver felt specifically for the emperor. Until now, only 20-30 are known to have survived. The hat – made for a winter campaign and most probably worn during the battles of Jena and Auerstadt in 1806 – has a fascinating history. It was owned by the theatrical costumier Leopold Verch whose Berlin-based business dated from the early 1880s. Verch became not only the leading supplier of costumes for stage (and later screen) in Germany but also the Purveyor for the Prussian Royal Court. On his travels round Europe, Verch acquired a large personal collection of clothing and hats which were used as templates for his stage costumes. This was common practice for theatrical costumiers at the time and the hat bears a number of distinctive markings including the inscription 'Original Napoleon I' which suggests it was, indeed, part of the private collection.

The hat has been the subject of recent intensive research, first at the Musée de l'Armée at Les Invalides in Paris where it was confirmed that it matched the dimensions and age of other of Napoleon's bicornes. Intriguingly, further examination showed that the leather sweatband common to these type of hats appears to have been deliberately removed. Napoleon was known to have found the sweatbands uncomfortable and other examples of his hats also show that they had been cut out. It was confirmed that the felt was made in the same way as other known Napoleon hats and further examination narrowed the date of manufacture to the early part of the 19th century.

7 September 2021

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