Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2011 Issue

Robespierre's Notes Sold, Then "Preempted" by France at Sotheby's Auction

Robespierredocs

Handwritten notes by Robespierre. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Some interesting maneuvering at the last minute at Sotheby's in Paris has saved a priceless, but nonetheless very expensive, French manuscript for the French people. Offered for sale on May 18 was 116 pages of handwritten material by Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the worst part of the French Revolution. Robespierre's papers generated great support among the French people, even if the man himself is not so beloved.

 

In the chaos of the French Revolution, Robespierre rose to power in July of 1793 as the de facto head of the ironically named Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre had already been a leading voice among those who successfully argued for the guillotining of King Louis XVI, and under his leadership, many more heads would role. His rule is today more commonly known as the "Reign of Terror." Executions were no longer limited to monarchists and the like, but practically everyone came under suspicion, and even ardent revolutionaries were executed without trial on the grounds they had become counterrevolutionaries. Robespierre can be seen, at least by his defenders, as an idealist, someone who believed that terror was actually justice used to defend the downtrodden of society. His justification of the means is similar to that of today's terrorists, even if his goals were entirely different.

 

Eventually, not even Robespierre could avoid his own reign of terror. On July 26, 1794, he delivered a lengthy speech before the Convention of Deputies that hinted at conspiracy on the part of some of its members. No names were given but many members feared they were next in line for "justice." The next day, the Convention had Robespierre and his closest allies arrested at the Hotel de Ville, where they were staying. Several tried to escape or commit suicide, Robespierre shooting himself in the jaw in an apparent suicide attempt. Instead, he was imprisoned, and using the same quick form of "justice" he had advocated for others, Robespierre was executed by guillotine the following day.

 

What remained unknown to most of France for over two centuries was that there was this handwritten document by Robespierre, created between 1792 and July 1794. It includes some of his philosophical thoughts, drafts of speeches and articles, and a letter. Many include changes in his hand that may shed further light on his thinking. Included is a draft of his famous speech of July 26 that led to his execution two days later. The document has spent the last 200-plus years in the hands of the descendants of Philippe Francois Joseph Le Bas. Le Bas was a close associate of Robespierre, one who successfully committed suicide that night at the Hotel de Ville.

 

When it was announced that these papers would be sold at auction, there was a groundswell of support, especially among the leftist parties who are more favorably inclined towards Robespierre goals, to keep them in France. Nonetheless, private property is private property, and Le Bas' heirs went ahead with the sale. Sotheby's placed an estimate on them of €200,000 - €300,000 (roughly $285,000 - $430,000 in U.S. currency). The estimate was way off. When the hammer came down, the price, all in, was €900,750 (US $1,278,000).

 

Then came the dramatic moment. The French National Archives has the power to "preempt" a sale. This means that if an item is of historic importance to the nation, it can preempt the winning bid, that is, seize the piece by paying the amount of the winning bid. Evidently some other bidders wanted these documents badly, and who knows how far the winning bidder might have taken the bidding had he known how high the Archives were willing to go. Certainly this was more than the Archives expected, or had cash on hand to buy, but aggressive fundraising immediately began after the sale was preempted. In total, €979,400 will need to be raised as letters written by Maximilien Robespierre's brother Augustin and Le Bas were also preempted. A French legacy, albeit a somewhat tarnished one, has been saved for France. Viva la France.

 

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Sense and Sensibility: A Novel, By a Lady,</i> 3 volumes, London, 1811. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>Kew Gardens,</i> limited edition, signed by Woolf & Bell, London, 1927. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> <i>[Arabian Nights],</i> Calcutta II version, 4 volumes, Calcutta & London, 1839-1842. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 ALS to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor, anticipating Christie’s sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Emma,</i> first edition, London, 1816. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Hirohito & Nagako, Emperor & Empress of Japan, 2 photographs signed, showing Nagako in kimono & obi bearing the imperial seal. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 autograph letters signed to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor Elizabeth Tilberis, anticipating Christie’s announcement of a sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Sarojini Naidu, complete galley proof of <i>The Broken Wing</i> signed with several holograph pages & an autograph letter signed to writer Edmund Gosse, 1916. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Fernando Pessoa, <i>Mensagem,</i> first edition, presentation copy, signed & inscribed, Lisbon, 1934. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Graham Greene, <i>The Basement Room,</i> first edition, Greene’s personal copy, signed with annotations throughout, London, 1935. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Abraham Lincoln, partly-printed document signed, call for troops issued during America’s first national draft just days before the NYC draft riots, 1863. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b><br><i>Les Chansons de Bilitis</i> by Pierre Louÿs, illustrated by George Barbier & F.L. Schmied, Paris, 1922. $8,000 to $12,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €
  • <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Harriet Tubman Cabinet Card by H.S. Squyer, Auburn, NY, 1892. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Scarce <i>Events of the Tulsa Disaster,</i> First Edition, 1922. $4,000 to $6,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Unpublished CDV of Frederick Douglass by Benjamin F. Smith, 1864. $3,000 to $5,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> California Imprint of <i>President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation</i> Broadside, 1864. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> John C.H. Grabill Cabinet Card of Buffalo Soldier Wearing Buffalo Coat, ca 1886. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare <i>What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,</i> 2nd Cookbook Published by African American. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Frederick Douglass Walking Stick, 1888. $3,000 to $5,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Only Known Slave Narrative Published Independently in California, <i>Life and Adventures of James Williams.</i> $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare First Edition of History of Black Literature, Abbé Grégoire <i>De La Littérature des Nègres</i>. $2,500 to $3,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> African American Soldier and Medal of Honor Winner Christian A. Fleetwood CDV, PLUS. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries Pennant, 1910 Reno, Nevada. $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Joe Gans Photograph at 1906 Goldfield, Nevada Fight by Percy Dana. $600 to $800

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions