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

  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>November 12-13, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> MACHIAVELLI, Niccolò. <i>Nicholas Machiavel's Prince. Also, The life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca…</i> Translated by Edward Dacres. London, 1640. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> FILSON, John. <i>The Discovery, Settlement and present State of Kentucke: and An Essay towards the Topography, and Natural History of that important Country…</i> Wilmington, Del.: James Adams, 1784. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> ELUARD, Paul. <i>Un poeme dans chaque livre.</i> Paris: Louis Broder, 1956. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>November 12-13, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> LEWIS, James Otto. [<i>Aboriginal Port Folio.</i> Philadelphia: Published by the Author, 1835-1836]. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> [ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS]. BOOK OF HOURS, use of Rome, in Latin. [Southern Netherlands (Ghent or Bruges), c.1460]. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> MORE, Thomas, Sir. <i>The Workes ... wrytten by him in the Englysh tongue.</i> Edited by William Rastell. London, 1557. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>November 12-13, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. MORRIS, William. <i>Love is Enough.</i> Hammersmith: The Kelmscott Press, 1897. $5,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph endorsement signed as President (“A. Lincoln”), 24 February 1863. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> WASHINGTON, George. Address panel with autograph free frank signed ("G:o Washington"), as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, 5 August 1777. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>November 12-13, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> GOREY, Edward. <i>The Beastly Baby.</i> N.p.: The Fantod Press, 1962. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> FROST, Robert. Photographic reproduction signed and inscribed ("Robert Frost”), to R.V. Thornton, 1955. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 12-13:</b> GOREY, Edward. <i>The Bug Book.</i> New York: Looking Glass Library, 1959. $500 to $700.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Pride & Prejudice,</i> 3 volumes, first edition, London, 1813. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> John Hancock, Uncommon Privateer Commission, signed as President of Continental Congress, 1777. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> Frank Lloyd Wright, photograph signed & inscribed. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> Abraham Lincoln, document signed conscripting troops for first national draft in U.S., 1863. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Sense & Sensibility,</i> 3 volumes, first edition, London, 1811. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> Charles Dickens, <i>American Notes for General Circulation,</i> first edition, inscribed to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., London, 1842. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> John Maynard Keynes, <i>The General Theory of Employment, Interest & Money,</i> first edition, London, 1936. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> Alexandre Raymond, <i>L’Art Islamique en Orient,</i> 2 volumes, first editions, Péra-Constantinople, 1922-24. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 17:</b> Igor Stravinsky, autograph musical quotation signed, 3 bars from <i>Perséphone,</i> 1936. $1,500 to $2,500.
  • <b>Christie’s, Nov 3 :</b> REGAMEY, Felix (1844-1906). Unique drawing showing Verlaine and Rimbaud in London, September 1872. €70,000 to 100,000
    <b>Christie’s, Nov 3 :</b> LABORDE, Alexandre de (1773-1842). <i>Voyage pittoresque et historique de l’Espagne.</i> Paris : 1806-1820. €20,000 to 30,000
    <b>Christie’s, Nov 3 :</b> BOCCACE, Jean (1313-1375). <i>Il Decamerone…</i> Venise : Gabriele Giolito di Ferrari, 1542.<br>€ 12,000 to 15,000
    <b>Christie’s, Nov 3 :</b> LAMBERT, Yvon (1936). Full collection of writings from <i>Une rêverie émanée de mes loisirs.</i> Paris : 1992 - 2018. €50,000 to 70,000
    <b>Christie’s, Nov 3 :</b> JOUVE, Paul (1878-1973) -- KIPLING, Rudyard (1865-1936). <i>La Chasse de Kaa.</i> Paris : Javal & Bourdeaux, 1930. €2,000 to 3,000

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