University Archives


Napoleon's Miniature Portrait in Mahogany Frame from his St. Helena Coffin, Ex-Nicholson Napoleon Collection

A sensational piece of Napoleonia: a portrait of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) framed within part of the mahogany outer coffin which interred his body at St. Helena between 1821-1840. From the Nicholson Napoleon Collection.

Napoleon died on St. Helena on May 5, 1821 and was buried in Sane Valley, one of his favorite spots on the island, on May 9th. (The Emperor had requested to be buried on the banks of the Seine, but this was one of many of his last wishes which were never fulfilled.) In 1840, a movement began to return Napoleon's body to France. This event would later became known as the "retour des cendres," or, "return of the remains." Louis Philippe's son François d'Orléans, Prince Joinville (1818-1900), spearheaded the mission to repatriate Napoleon's body.

On October 15, 1840, Napoleon's body was exhumed. In order to extract the three heavy inner coffins in which he was interred (one tin, one mahogany, one lead), the outer mahogany coffin was cut into two pieces. The frame fragments present here almost certainly came from that outer mahogany coffin which had been sacrificed.

The miniature portrait of Napoleon, measuring 1.75" square, is of oil on an unknown mount rendered entirely in grayscale. It depicts the dead Emperor, with eyes closed and head encircled by a laurel wreath, as he might have appeared (with some dramatic license) within the recently opened coffin; a sword pommel and medal and sash are displayed in the foreground. Isolated paint loss, notably to the chin, else near fine. Framed behind glass in a pierced, ornately decorated gilded plaster frame which has pieces of the Napoleon's original mahogany coffin inset verso. Minor gilt loss and expected checking, else near fine. Overall frame size: 4" x 4.25" x .75."

On the reverse, a small window trimmed in mahogany coffin fragments reveals the hand-written note: "This inside Frame is made out of a piece of the outward Coffin of Napoleon the 1st, given to my Brother by Captain Chamére of the Belle Poule when the remains of Napoleon were brought to France. Made and gilded by my poor Brother." The outer border of the frame has been hand-painted "S. Helene, le 15 Oct: 1840 à 5 heures PM / Cha. C. Michel," along with "Chamére. Captn Belle Poule."

The names of three of Napoleon's beloved generals and servants, all of whom witnessed the exhumation, also appear on the frame borders. These are:

-"Bertrand / General" refers to Henri Gratien, Count Bertrand (1773-1844), who served with Napoleon in Egypt in the 1790s, then continued on as Napoleon's aide-de-camp, general, regional governor, and after 1813, Grand Marshal of the Palace. Bertrand followed Napoleon to Elba in 1814, and to St. Helena in 1815, where he lived until 1821.

- "Gourgaud / General" refers to Gaspard Gourgaud (1783-1852). Gourgaud served in the Napoleonic Wars, where he once bravely repelled Cossacks who were menacing Napoleon's tent. He became Napoleon's aide-de-camp and fought at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), following his master into exile on St. Helena. Gourgaud feuded with other members of Napoleon's staff and left the island prior to 1821.

- "Marchand" refers to Louis Joseph Marchand (1791-1876), who served as Napoleon's First Valet in exile on Elba and St. Helena.

"La Belle Poule" [trans: "The Beautiful Hen"] was a 60-gun frigate of the French Navy originally commissioned in 1835. She was painted all black in order to serve as Napoleon's funeral barge. "La Belle Poule" was in fact commanded by Léonard Victor Charner (1797-1869). This is not the same spelling as "Captain Chamére," but it is a near match phonetically.

The "Belle Poule" arrived at St. Helena on October 8, 1840. A week later, on October 15th, Napoleon's nesting coffins were opened to confirm that the Emperor was still inside. There was no doubt of the cadaver's identity; Napoleon's features were remarkably preserved, causing many of his followers to weep aloud. The original tin coffin was then sealed and placed in the original mahogany shell and the original lead shell, then in a new lead shell, a new ebony shell, and finally, a new oak shell. The huge nesting sarcophagus weighing approximately 1,200 kilograms was boarded onto the "Belle Poule," which arrived in Cherbourg, France on November 30th. The body was later interred at Les Invalides in Paris.

The lot is also accompanied by:

1. A set of two pocket-sized leather-bound books, one "The Book of Common Prayer" (Oxford, 1828), the other "The First Lessons" (London, 1829), both hand-inscribed with a dedication on the front pastedown endpaper. Contained in a clamshell case with top flap. 48mo.

2. A carte de visite depicting Vice-Admiral Michell, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and Crimean War.

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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