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Napoleon Loses Russia--& Then His Pants--On the Flight from Moscow, with Outstanding Early 20th C. Provenance! Ex-Nicholson Napoleon Collection

A piece of leather from a pair of leg coverings once used and owned by French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Provenance: Ex-Nicholson Napoleon Collection; Ex-Everett Roebuck (Basktop, Texas); Ex-Olive Richie (Lima, Ohio). Accompanied by a handwritten letter dated November 24, 1914 detailing how and when this intriguing Napoleon relic was obtained; an auction catalog description and certificate; and several newspaper clippings.

The early twentieth-century provenance, reproduced more completely below, states that this piece of Napoleon's trousers was collected by Saferi, Napoleon's body servant, during the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. The fragment of sheep or deerskin is squarish in shape, with a button hole visible in one corner, and various areas of hand-sewn stitching. The exterior is a rich brown while the reverse is buff in color. Expected wear consistent with age, else very good. 3.675" x 2.875."

Napoleon's Grande Armée had marched into Russia in June 1812 with 685,000 men. Napoleon had reached Moscow in September 1812, but it was nothing but a Pyrrhic victory as the capital was already abandoned and Tsar Alexander I refused to negotiate a surrender. Napoleon eventually retreated through Western Russia with what was left of his armies. Costly battles, sickness, starvation, and the extreme cold had reduced his principal fighting force to 45% of its original number.

During his military campaigns, Napoleon typically wore practical clothing, like his oft depicted double-breasted grey overcoat, which would keep him clean, dry, and warm. According to Napoleon's valets, he had two favorite uniforms: the Imperial Guard cavalry uniform (white and green), and the Imperial Guard infantry or grenadier uniform (white and dark blue.) Napoleon can be seen wearing each of these uniforms in period paintings.

It is possible, however, and even likely, that Napoleon donned extra clothing during that brutally cold autumn of the retreat from Moscow. This leather fragment could have been part of sturdier leg coverings--like heavy cavalry breeches, made of animal skin--or as part of an article of clothing called campaign trousers, or charivari. Campaign trousers were overalls made of cloth with leather-reinforced legs and cuffs. The single buttonhole found in our leather fragment suggests that the original leg coverings probably had more button holes extending all the way up the leg, as can be seen in other Napoleonic War-era garb. (Indeed, fashion historians have concluded that this period, marking the transition from breeches to over-breeches, and then from overalls to campaign trousers, precipitated the creation of the trouser as we know it today.)

The historical record does not readily reveal any information about a body servant named Saferi. Napoleon had at least three valets who served him between the Egyptian campaign in 1798 and his death on St. Helena in 1821. Napoleon's First Valet, Louis Constant Wairy (1778-1845), refused to join his master in Elba; the vacancy was then filled by Louis Joseph Marchand (1791-1876), who remained with Napoleon until his death. Roustam Raza served as Napoleon's bodyguard and Second Valet between 1798-1814. Was our Saferi a Third, Fourth, or Fifth Valet, whose lowly rank among Napoleon's domestics relegated him to obscurity?

Provenance

1. A 2pp autograph letter signed by John Merchant Burr of Cardington, Ohio addressed to J.F. Schilling of Lima, Ohio dated November 24, 1914, along with the tattered original transmittal envelope. Contained overall in a larger envelope pencil-inscribed "Very Important about Napoleon."

Burr wrote in part:

"Dear old Friend,

…I am indeed glad you let me know of the relic for I can send you what you wish + gladly. I would send you the one from the other end of the strip but it is written on by the man who gave it to me + he is now passed beyond.

The history of it as near as I can give it is: The trousers from which the piece was taken were worn by Napoleon Bonaparte during the siege of Moscow + becoming soiled was discarded only to be picked up by his body servant (the son of whom gave the piece to me) who after removing the gold buckles (which bore the 'family crest' or rather the 'crest' created for himself) +c doned them + wore them until he was wounded + eventually returned home to France where they were handed down as an 'heir-loom' of the family. The man's name was Saferi.

That is the history as given to me. I am always pleased to do any thing I am in a position to do for any one who is interested in preserving things of this nature + especially am I pleased to do so for a friend…

As ever your friend
John M Burr."

2. An auction description and certificate corresponding to "Item #582A at the sale of Guns - Civil War and Military Collection of Everett Roebuck - Basktop, Texas" describing the leather fragment as a "Napoleon Bonapart[e] [sic] trousers piece…from the Estate of Olive Richie, Lima, Ohio."

3. A newspaper clipping from "The Lima News" dated February 24, 1977 showing a Texan rancher who recently purchased Napoleon's sword at auction, pencil inscribed at top: "put this with the piece of Napoleon's pants & hair that Dad had."

4. A newspaper clipping from May 1996 entitled "Napoleon's socks fetch $4,400."

5. A newspaper article entitled "Hair Snips Reveal Napoleon Poisoned."

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.

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