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French maps from 1781 that helped free America to be auctioned

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Two large maps and six sketches of military defenses hand drawn by French military engineers in 1781 and used during the American War of Independence, the last such documents in private hands, will be auctioned off at a chateau in France next month.

[PARIS] Want a piece of American history?

Two large maps and six sketches of military defenses hand drawn by French military engineers in 1781 and used during the American War of Independence, the last such documents in private hands, will be auctioned off at a chateau in France next month.

Salvaged in 2007, the maps - that only barely escaped becoming mouse food - show British defenses along the East Coast, including fortifications near New York. They are being sold by the eighth-generation descendants of Marshall de Rochambeau, the commander of the French expeditionary force sent by King Louis XVI to aid the American rebels.

"We've had major interest from American collectors and museums,"  said Aymeric Rouillac, whose family-owned auction house is handling the sale. "This is really the last chance to get your hands on Rochambeau's maps."

The other known maps of this type are held by the Library of Congress, Yale University, or France's national archives, Mr Rouillac said. The auction will be held June 12 and 13 at the Chateau d'Artigny, a hotel built 100 years ago in the style of an 18th century chateau near Tours in the Loire Valley.

The two-day sale also features unrelated antiques, Asian art, and paintings, he said, adding that potential buyers don't have to trek out to the Loire Valley because they can bid over the phone or online.

The maps on sale might well have ended up as mouse food had it not been for a lucky discovery in 2007 by Philippe Rouillac, Aymeric's father. Visiting the rural house of a distant Rochambeau descendant to take possession of the armchair in which the Count de Rochambeau died in 1807, Philippe asked if he might look around for other artifacts. 

As he opened up a trunk, mice scattered away to reveal a cache of maps, letters, and other documents under a thick layer of dust. The sketches, based on reports by French and American spies, range from about 25x29 centimetres (10x11.5 inches) to 50x50 cm and were drawn on tracing paper.

They show fortifications near New York, Boston harbor, and Portsmouth, Virginia. The two large scale maps, one of which is a metre long, show New York City and Yorktown, and are drawn on thick white paper.

The maps and sketches were all drawn in multiple copies, with some shared with George Washington's continental army and others sent to the then King of France. Because they were drawn by hand, each map remains unique. The map of New York on sale is the only one to include water depths to help guide naval forces, Mr Rouillac said.

The French defense ministry preempted the sale of 66 documents found in 2007, which are now in its archives. The government has pledged that it won't block the export of the remaining documents being auctioned next month, mostly because its archives hold similar items.

Mr Rouillac wouldn't estimate the potential take from the 46 Rochambeau lots being auctioned, which also include some medals, paintings, and the count's backgammon table. Bidding on the maps will start at 10,000 euros (S$15,400) but are likely to fetch much more, he said.

A military map from the War of Independence went for US$1.1 million in a US auction in February 2010, the last such sale, he said.

Buyers of the maps will get a marker of a centuries-old relationship between the US and France, which remains the world's longest-lasting military alliance.

In the late 1700s, that relationship was personified by Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the count of Rochambeau, who was born in Vendome, south-west of Paris, in 1725. Noted for his successes in the War of Austrian succession, King Louis XVI chose him to lead the 6,000-man expeditionary force sent in 1780 to aid the American rebels.

Lacking naval support, Rochambeau convinced Washington not to attack the heavily defended city of New York, instead marching to Virginia to join the French fleet, commanded by Admiral Francois-Joseph de Grasse, that had sailed up from the Caribbean. The Americans and French by land, and the French at sea, trapped and defeated General Cornwallis's army at Yorktown, forcing Britain to sue for peace.

Most Americans associate the more flamboyant Marquis de Lafayette with the French intervention. The 19-year-old Lafayette arrived in America in 1777 on his own initiative, using his French military experience to train and command Washington's inexperienced troops.

While Lafayette went on to play a role in the French revolution and was a member of parliament until his death in 1834, Rochambeau retired from the army in 1792.

Rochambeau's family in 1883 sold 1,800 documents to the Library of Congress, including 40 battlefield maps. More family-held archives were sold in 1952, eventually ending up at the Yale University library.

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