Napoleon’s death-bed nightshirt saved from auction at last minute

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 9:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 9:10pm


A sweat-stained nightshirt worn by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1821 as he lay dying on St Helena - cursing the British who had sent him into exile on the remote South Atlantic volcanic island - was withdrawn from an auction at the last moment.

The item used by the French emperor as he fell into a coma, plus bandages, a small walking stick and a lock of the emperor's hair - all described by auctioneer Jean-Christophe Chataignier as the "vestiges of the very end of Napoleon's life"- had been due to go under the hammer on Sunday in Fontainebleau, near Paris.

The things were all collected by Achille Thomas Archambault, Napoleon's loyal stable master, who rarely left his bedside; later he held the emperor's head as the death mask was made, and attended the autopsy, where witnesses said he was the only one of Napoleon's entourage to appear upset.

These items had been part of a collection of historic pieces to be auctioned from the French first and second empire (1804-70).

However, descendants of Archambault obtained an injunction stopping the sale of the items for fear they would be taken abroad. "They wanted this heritage to stay in France," Horia Dazi-Masmi, a lawyer for the relatives, told Le Parisien newspaper.

These items will now be held in reserve until there was an agreement about what should be done with them, the lawyer said.

Objects linked to Napoleon have sparked global interest and furious bidding at auction in the past; the Archambault collection, considered a rare and unusual treasure trove, was the centrepiece of Sunday's sale.

The auctioneers Chataignier and Jean-Pierre Osenat, specialists in the Napoleonic period, had found the items packed in a wooden box in a village in Corsica, where Napoleon was born.

Archambault was trained as a horse-breaker before he and his younger brother, Joseph, were reportedly recruited to the imperial stables around 1807 by Napoleon's wife, Josephine.

He was present at Elba - the Mediterranean island where Napoleon was exiled in 1814, and then escaping in 1815 before being defeated by the European allies of the Seventh Coalition, led by Britain's Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.

Lots that did go under the hammer on Sunday included a death mask and letters signed "Napole", "Nap", "Napo" and "Np", and a gold and ruby brooch marked in English, "This locket contains the hair of Bonaparte and Josephine his wife".