The Emperor’s Old Hat: DNA Show It’s Napoleon’s Bicorne That’s Up For Auction

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The Emperor’s Old Hat: DNA Show It’s Napoleon’s Bicorne That’s Up For Auction

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Scientists have found the DNA of the French Emperor and military leader Napoleon on a hat found in a German auction house.

A bicorne hat that bears DNA evidence proving it once belonged to 19th-century French emperor and conqueror of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte, has been put on display in Hong Kong by a leading international auction house.

Described as the “first hat to bear the Emperor’s DNA”, it can be viewed in Hong Kong before auction house Bonhams moves the relic, first to Paris and then London where it will be auctioned on 27 October.

The hat, often seen in depictions of Napoleon on the battlefield, is closely associated with the general and was purchased by its present owner at a small German auction house that did not know at the time it had belonged to the emperor.

“It was purely a chance encounter,” says Simon Cottle, managing director for Bonhams Europe.

The buyer became intrigued when he realised it had inscriptions and other characteristics suggesting it could have belonged to Napoleon. It bears an inscription that reads: “Original Napoleon 1”. 

An initial investigation also suggested it matched the measurements and time period of other hats known to be owned by Napoleon.

Scientists then tested the hat extensively using a variety of analytic methods, including electron microscopy. They discovered far more important evidence.

“Five hairs were discovered when the contents of the hat were examined very closely,” Mr Cottle says.

“Two of those hairs were then followed up, and they carried the marker of Napoleon.”

Napoleon’s hats were made by Poupart et Cie. of Paris which produced about 120 of them from expensive pure beaver felt specifically for the emperor. Until now, only 20-30 are known to have survived. The hat has been the subject of recent intensive research, first at the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides in Paris where it was confirmed that it matched the dimensions and age of other of Napoleon’s bicornes. 

Intriguingly, further examination showed that the leather sweatband common to these type of hats appears to have been deliberately removed. Napoleon was known to have found the sweatbands uncomfortable and other examples of his hats also show that they had been cut out.

The hat has also been tested by Professor Gerard Lucotte, the molecular geneticist who first identified the markers for Napoleon’s DNA a decade ago. 

Using spectroscopy, Professor Lucotte found that a hair from the hat carried the Emperor’s precise DNA marker. 

Examination of other microbiological material confirmed that the felt was made in the same way as other of Napoleon’s hats and further analysis narrowed the date of manufacture to the early part of the 19th century. 

“This is a very exciting and significant discovery, says Simon Cottle. “The bicorne can be dated to the early 19th century, the material is beaver felt exactly as in the Poupart hats and – crucially – the DNA research has established beyond all reasonable doubt that this was indeed the hat of the Emperor Napoleon.”

Believed to be the first of Napoleon’s hats to contain traces of his DNA, this winter campaign hat was, says Bonhams, most probably worn during the battles of Jena and Auerstadt in 1806. It later became part of a large private collection before being discovered at the German auction House. 

Price estimations for the hat float between £100,000 and £150,000 (US 137,00-$206,000) but these are cautious figures, Mr Cottle says, as the hat was only recently proven to have belonged to the emperor.

Other Napoleonic hats, with more history in the auction circuit, have fetched as much as or pds 1.82 million or $US2.5 million.

Copies of Professor Lucotte’s research in both French and English together with the hair on which he based his findings will be sold with the hat.

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