Napoleon in exile on St. Helena as a British prisoner. Hand-colored woodcut
Sotheby's at 275

How Napoleon's Walking Stick Started Sotheby's As We Know It

By Christian House
In the early 19th Century, Sotheby's was the premier auction house for books and manuscripts, cataloguing Napoleon's St Helena collection in 1823. However, along with this collection was a unique and personal item of the emperor's, which was to transform Sotheby's fortunes and focus forever.

O n 27 July 1823, a small library from a big figure (in repute at least) was offered at Sotheby’s in London. This was the reading matter of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on the island of St Helena, a volcanic dot halfway between Africa and South America, during his final years in exile.

When Napoleon arrived on St Helena in the winter of 1815, he brought his servants – including a pastry chef, naturellement – and his collections of Imperial portraits and Sevres porcelain. He also took his books – 112 volumes, including a French volume on mathematics annotated with the Emperor’s algebra calculations.

In The Emperor’s Last Island, historian Julia Blackburn describes how Napoleon “acquired the habit of staring at his possessions, mesmerised by the associations that were contained in each item, and looking at them as a person might look at a photograph of themselves as a child, or of friends who were long since dead.”

Napoleon in exile on St. Helena as a British prisoner. Image: Alamy
Napoleon in exile on St. Helena as a British prisoner. Image: Alamy

Following Napoleon’s death in 1821, his library was shipped back to Europe where it would be catalogued by Sotheby’s nine years later. But the auction had one curious and highly-personal item added as the final lot of the sale: Napoleon’s “Magnificent Walking Stick”, formed of one piece of tortoise-shell, three-feet in length, and mounted in gold, with a musical head. It sold for thirty eight pounds, seventeen shillings (roughly £2,200 today).

That stick represented a seismic shift in the company’s fortunes. Sotheby’s – as founded by Samuel Baker and developed by several generations of the Sotheby family – was until then first and foremost a book auctioneer and retailer of rare volumes. Napoleon’s stick was one of the first outstanding objects, complete with prestigious provenance, to be sold at Sotheby’s.

As the 19th century progressed, prints and paintings increasingly appeared at Sotheby’s auctions along with antiquities and porcelain. Other fields, such as coins, medals, arms and armour, soon followed. And by the 1860s, a third of each year’s sales were outside of the book market. In 1868 the company even staged its first wine sale – 1,300 cases of Rhine wines from the stock of a London merchant.

The 20th century saw Sotheby’s expand into sales of jewelry, automobiles and even vintage aeroplanes. In the 1950s Impressionist pictures made headlines at Sotheby’s and in the 1970s it was the turn of Contemporary masters, including Warhol and Pollock. In the two centuries since Napoleon’s stick works from fossils to Space suits have come under the hammer. And today, as it celebrates its 275th anniversary, Sotheby’s now offers works from across some 70 collecting categories.

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