T he Hospices de Beaune, with its flamboyant roofs, and of course, its prestigious wine sale, whose 161st edition will be held on the third Sunday of November, is known to all. However, the connection between the two is not necessarily understood, although it allows us to appreciate the mission and the role of this extraordinary hospital. Here, its director, François Poher, explains the fascinating history and philanthropy of Burgundy’s most lauded charitable institution.
How did the history of the Hospices de Beaune begin?
The Hospices de Beaune was born from the political and spiritual initiative of Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Bon, and Rolin’s wife, Guigone de Salins. In 1443, while the Hundred Years' War was still raging, he decided to endow the city of Beaune with a hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, intended to treat the poor free of charge. As the first patients arrived in 1452, the people of Burgundy quickly showed their gratitude to the institution with donations and bequests, in cash or in kind, by giving it portions of forests, houses, ponds and, naturally, vineyards.
When did the commercialization of wine begin?
It was done right at the start, even though the market value was obviously much lower than today. What has changed is the procedure. Until the French Revolution, the wine was sold by mutual agreement, like any other agricultural product. The auction system only really took hold in 1859. The reputation of the event was gradually established from then on. It became more international in the 2000s when the organization of the sale was entrusted to Christie's, recently succeeded by Sotheby's. Unquestionably, its prestige is also due to the quality of the wine, composed essentially of premiers and grands crus. Now, private individuals can be buyers as well. In this case, they entrust the wine to an éléveur who takes care of it until it is ready to be bottled. In 2020, in spite of the health crisis, the 629 barrels auctioned had a turnover of over 12 million euros.
What has become of the charitable vocation since the Hospices de Beaune was transformed into a museum?
It remains essential, even if the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune has not received patients since the beginning of the 1980s. The medical capacity was transferred to the new hospital in Beaune – the Centre Hospitalier Philippe le Bon – which was merged in 2015 with the hospitals of Arnay-le-Duc, Seurre and Nuits-Saint-Georges. The proceeds from the sale allows for the modernization of hospital equipment and buildings at Hospices Civils de Beaune, such as the purchase of a new CT scanner or the equipment for the new cardiovascular rehabilitation department that opened in early 2021.
In fact, when you buy wine from the Hospices de Beaune domain, you are not only buying a great vintage. You are defending a just cause. There is a deeper meaning.
Coming back to the auctions themselves. They include an important highlight, the auction of the "Pièce du Président". What exactly is it?
Its introduction in the sale dates from 1978. The Hospices de Beaune wanted to go beyond the activities concerning the hospital by developing a charitable action, a way of respecting the spirit of the founders. In fact, in the beginning, in addition to receiving patients, the distribution of bread was once organized on the esplanade of the Hôtel-Dieu. Although the practice has died out, its symbolism has been maintained, precisely through the auctioning of the "Pièce du Président", so called because each year a celebrity is invited to sponsor it. The amount collected is used to support one or more charities, among those that we receive for consideration. However, the "Pièce du Président " is only one of our actions.
Each year we distribute roughly €400,000 to several charitable or cultural associations in our region or sometimes internationally. The largest sum we give is a subsidy of €170,000; we allocate it to the Beaune medical service that provides care for the most needy.
And what are the Hospices Civils de Beaune’s current projects?
The Hospices Civils de Beaune is fully committed to completing the reconstruction of the Centre Hospitalier Philippe Le Bon, as well as the renovation and redesign of the Hôtel-Dieu Museum. The work on the museum, which will begin in 2022, will be carried out in stages over a period of ten years, and will make it possible, among other things, to open rooms and buildings that were previously inaccessible to the public, and to set up a digital system that will reposition the famous panels of the Last Judgment, commissioned by Nicolas Rolin from the Flemish artist Rogier Van der Weyden, to its original location.
For this winter, we are preparing, together with the Beaune city hall, a large exhibition dedicated to the history of the Duchy of Burgundy and the role of Nicolas Rolin, in the hope of revitalizing the current economic situation, which has been hard hit by the health crisis.
As you can see, the Hospices Civils de Beaune is a hospital that is not quite like any other. Participating in this adventure is truly meaningful.