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Napoleon’s hat, dropped at Waterloo, is picked up at auction for US$400,000

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A hat attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte and said to have been dropped on the battlefield at Waterloo 203 years ago was bought on Monday for more than US$400,000. It was another sign, if one were needed, that the French emperor continues to fascinate collectors and curators across the globe.

[PARIS] A hat attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte and said to have been dropped on the battlefield at Waterloo 203 years ago was bought on Monday for more than US$400,000. It was another sign, if one were needed, that the French emperor continues to fascinate collectors and curators across the globe.

The hat — one of Napoleon's iconic black felt bicorns — was sold at an auction in the central French city of Lyon for 350,000 euros (S$550,000), including fees, far beyond the presale estimate of 30,000 to 40,000 euros. The buyer was a private collector from Europe whose identity was not made public.

The hat is one of about 120 two-cornered military dress hats that Napoleon was said to have worn during his rule between 1799 and 1815, as first consul and then emperor, minus a period of exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba.

Historians have identified only 19 remaining hats, most of them now in museums. At an auction in 2014, the South Korean founder and chairman of the Harim food conglomerate bought one for more than US$2 million — about five times the asking price.

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That hat, which came from a collection belonging to Monaco's royal family, was in much better shape than the one sold on Monday, which is faded, torn and cracked in some places, said Étienne de Baecque, an auctioneer at De Baecque and Associates, which organized the Lyon sale.

But even damaged goods attract deep-pocketed buyers when associated with Napoleon.

"There is a lot of interest," de Baecque said in a telephone interview, adding that Napoleon's meteoric rise to power and military conquests still captivate people. "He is one of those rare figures who are known in the whole world and who fascinate almost everybody on the planet."

In November, a single gold leaf taken from the laurel crown Napoleon wore at his coronation fetched over US$725,000 at an auction in Paris.

Nicolas Dugoujon, an expert in military and historical memorabilia who presented the hat at the auction, said in a telephone interview that it was difficult to predict the pricing of rare historical objects but that anything tied to Napoleon and his First French Empire was highly popular.

"I've sold imperial guard sabers to people in Puerto Rico, in New York," he said. "At the sale there were young people in their 20s who came to ask me if they could touch the hat, who were moved."

Although it is difficult to establish the provenance of such historical artifacts with absolute certainty, de Baecque said that the history of the hat sold Monday had been well-documented and that there were strong guarantees it had once belonged to Napoleon.

The hat is said to have been picked up as a war trophy by a Dutch dragoon captain after the Battle of Waterloo, where a coalition of European armies defeated the French on June 18, 1815. Records show it then switched hands multiple times, and it was even showcased at a 1897 world's fair in Brussels.

The hat itself also bears clues. It is Napoleon's size and has several modifications that the emperor was known to request, such as the removal of a band of sheepskin lining and reinforcements that make it easier to grab.

"It's a very simple hat, not at all a ceremonial one, it was meant to be worn in everyday life," de Baecque said.

He pointed out that the auction house had scheduled the sale on the 203rd anniversary of the battle of Waterloo and joked that a high selling price was a form of revenge for France.

"Selling it at a very expensive price to an Englishman would be perfect," he quipped.

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