So, the hairs were analysed for DNA, and geneticists confirmed that it was that of Napoleon Bonaparte. Let’s face it, it’s a great story, worthy of a police investigation conducted by Scotland Yard’s finest detectives. When it comes to DNA, however, it is sensible to be extremely cautious. Despite scientific progress, many questions remain; what is more, we do not possess the complete DNA of the Emperor, only fragments. In this area, then, you can back up absolutely any theory. For the bicorn to be sold in London, the best thing would be to have an indisputable provenance; a family member or a comrade-in-arms for example. But there is no such evidence in this case. The auction house suggests that it could be a hat left by Napoleon in Germany during the 1806 campaign. Once again, merely a speculation.
There is no doubt that this hat will find a buyer at a price that defies belief, as was the case a few years ago when a Korean billionaire spent nearly two million euros to acquire one. It is after all the price to be paid for rarity. Napoleon had his hats purchased from Poupard, a hatter and “galonnier” (based at the Palais Royal), for the fairly modest sum of sixty francs each. The palace ordered four each year for him, delivered at the beginning of each quarter. In all, between 120 and 160 of them were bought in this manner so that Napoleon’s wardrobe would always have twelve at its disposal. But on the battlefield, they were subject to a great deal of wear and tear and therefore did not last. On the bridge from Kehl to Strasbourg, there was such a downpour that a horseman in his guard saw the back of the Emperor’s hat flop down onto his shoulders. Sometimes the corners of the hats simply acted as gutters for rainwater. When the hats could no longer be used, they were given to the palace’s laundry maid who turned them into iron grips. A sorry fate for these now legendary objects.
Today, there are only about twenty of Napoleon’s hats left. But more than their rarity, it is what they personify that explains the fascination that they inspire. Since 1804, the hat has become an icon, admired by some, loathed by others. It is not merely the Emperor’s hat, it IS the Emperor, indistinguishable from him. To own one is to appropriate Napoleon in a way. But beware, as we know, the hat does not make the man or the woman!
Pierre Branda, September 2021 (English translation RY and PH)
Pierre Branda is head of the Heritage Department at the Fondation Napoléon