A felted-beaver bicorne hat belonging to Napoleon will be auctioned on October 27 in London. At the moment the hat is on display in Bonhams’ Hong Kong showrooms. It comes to Bonhams in Paris then to London so potential buyers will have plenty of chances to view it.

It’s the second of two auctions of artefacts associated with Napoleon. On September 23, one of Napoleon’s hats was sold for €1.2 million/$1.4 million at Sotheby’s.  It was worn by the Emperor onJuly 7, 1807, during a meeting with Russia’s Alexander I to sign the Treaty of Tislit.

Detail of David's Portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. Napoleon on white horse with red cloak and waving  with
Detail of David’s Portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps

How do we know this second hat for sale was Napoleon’s?

The current owner bought the hat at a small provincial German auction house. He became intrigued about its origin when he found an inscription inside the hat. He sent it to the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides in Paris who confirmed that it was the right size for the Emperor’s head and the right age. They also pointed out that someone had cut out the hat’s leather sweatband – something that Napoleon always had done to his hats.

But this was the clincher: two hairs found inside the hat were tested for Napoleon’s DNA and were a match.

Napoleon’s hats

Napoleon’s hats are known as bicornes after the two points. He wore his chapeau française sideways rather than with the points at the front and back or at an angle so he could be recognized on the battlefield.

Napoleon's hat at Fine Arts Museum Montreal
Napoleon’s Hat at Fine Arts Museum Montreal © Daderot/CC-BY-SA-1.0

The hat is the classic image associated with Napoleon. He kept his deliberately simple unlike the bicornes of his generals (and of Wellington’s) which sprouted ostrich feathers, gold and silver lacework.

Battle of Waterloo with Wellington hatless, on horse and generals in uniform with hats behind him
Battle of Waterloo. Wellington leads the English generals who wear their hats in a different style to Napoleon. Public domain

19 of Napoleon’s hats are believed to be still in existence, most of them in museums. He was a prodigious user of hats – apparently he wore around 120 of these throughout his life. Most of the ones that have found their way into museums and private collections came from noble families connected to the emperor, or by soldiers who picked them up on the battleground. Such souvenirs would always be worth selling.

Napoleon normally had 12 hats in service, each lasting him 3 years. He got through around four a year, using them after valets had worn them in, softening the hard fabric. They were mainly made by the Paris hat makers Poupart & Co. based in the Palais-Royal.

And the price of Napoleon’s hat?

Bonhams are being conservative in their estimate (€120,000 – €180,000/$140,000 – $210.000/£100,000 – £150,000) when considering the prices Napoleon’s hats have reached in the past.

First of all, there’s the latest Sotheby’s sale when that particular hat (without the dna hair confirmation) fetched €1.2 million/$1.4 million.

In 2018 a military hat of Napoleon, believed to have been picked up by a Dutch captain from the Waterloo battlefield, was sold at auction for €280,000 (£245,000/$325,000). The estimate was less than €40,000.

And one sold in 2014, believed to have worn by Napoleon during the Battle of Marengo in 1800 and originally in the Monaco royal family collection sold for €1.9million.

Prices vary wildly according to who wants a hat that badly.

So this is the story of what might become the most expensive hat in history. We will have to wait for October 27th to see who pays what for Napoleon’s hat.

For a long piece on Napoleon’s hat, read the catalogue on Bonhams’ website covering their important October French auction: Napoleon The British Sale.

Guide to Napoleon’s France

Feature Image: Bonhams