Published 19th March 2014
Though it has been over two hundred years since the decisive Battle of Trafalgar that changed the course of history, Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte continue to meet in battle in the auction room.
Both renowned strategists and celebrities of their own time, Nelson and Bonaparte are still regarded in high esteem by many modern day collectors who are eager to obtain a piece of history. While there are many commemorative pieces relating to both men that can be seen at auction on a regular basis, period items with good provenance are the Holy Grail to collectors. It is not until you are actually face to face with such items that you suddenly have a wave of realisation that you are holding history in your hands. This is the motivation behind the competitive bidding in the saleroom.
Over the years of dealing with the Specialist Maritime Auctions at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood, I have been fortunate to have sold a number of pieces from these two great men, and look forward to the renewed battle in the forthcoming Maritime Auction on 11th June 2014. A small unassuming late Georgian ivory and gilt mounted toothpick case is included in this sale. Not an interesting piece in itself, but inside carefully wrapped is a small packet labelled "Bonaparte's Hair". You may wonder how Old Boney's hair would come to be in a property in Devon, but investigating the story reveals the possibility that it is genuine.
After his defeat at Waterloo, Bonaparte was held captive aboard HMS Bellerophon in Torbay harbour prior to being exiled. Word spread and the bay was full over thousands of small boats and ships with curious onlookers all trying to get a look at England's greatest enemy. It is entirely possibly that a sailor aboard the Bellerophon may have taken a memento from Bonaparte's cabin. A similar lot was sold by Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood for £800, so there is considerable potential for this small parcel to soar above its £200-£300 pre-sale estimate.
However, to the victor go the spoils and this continues to the case for Nelson with high prices for his items at auction. Included in the June 2014 Maritime Sale is A wall cabinet constructed from the timbers of Nelson's first flagship HMS Foudroyant. Styled in the form of the stern galley of the ship with anchor light and arched transom, the cabinet would be a fine piece in which to display all of your other Nelson pieces. Constructed by Goodall, Lamb and Heighway in 1899, the cabinet should attract bidders with its unique history at £5,000-£7,000.
Also included in the sale is a letter signed by Nelson himself and dated 1803. The handwriting is distinctive, as Nelson was not naturally left handed and had to adapt to writing after loosing his lower arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797. Written in the latter stages of his life, it discusses the shipment of A pipe and best port wine to a relative in Canterbury. Previous signatures of Nelson on Admiralty documents have sold for over £4,000, but the personal nature and the handwritten text of this letter should encourage buyers to the upper end of a pre-sale estimate of £5,000-£7,000.
It is interesting to think that such pieces relating to perhaps two of the most significant historical figures can be found tucked away around the county. Even more interesting will be the results of this Maritime Auction in which these two combatants meet once more.