These extraordinary pistols are a living artifact of the idealistic fervor of the Enlightenment as embodied by Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, and the Marquis de Lafayette, revolutionary aristocrat. A tour-de-force of the premier maker of the era, Nicolas-Noël Boutet of Versailles, Napoleon’s official gunsmith, the pistols belong to an elite group of firearms made as important diplomatic gifts utilizing the finest possible materials and craftsmanship. The pistols were presented to Bolivar, “the George Washington of Latin America”, by his French admirer, Lafayette in 1825, a year when the aging Frenchman returned to the America of his youthful triumphs and El Libertador reached the zenith of his long struggle to liberate Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
Not Alexander, not Hannibal, not even Julius Caesar had fought across such a vast, inhospitable terrain. Charlemagne’s victories would have had to double to match Bolívar’s. Napoleon, striving to build empire, had covered less ground than Bolívar, struggling to win freedom.
--Marie Arana, Bolivar: American Liberator, Simon & Schuster, New York 2013
Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios (1783-1830) was born into a wealthy family in Caracas and died 47 years later the liberator of six Latin American countries: Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. Undertaking the typical European education and travels of his class Bolívar, was exposed to Enlightenment ideals, which he adopted with great passion. Bolívar was in Paris for the 1804 coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame cathedral which deeply moved him, perhaps crystallizing his desire to bring the independence movements of America and France to his native region. In Rome in 1805 he made this solemn promise:
I swear before you, I swear by the God of my fathers, by my forefathers themselves, by my honour and my country, that I shall never allow my hands to be idle or my soul to rest until I have broken the shackles which bind us to Spain.
Returning to Venezuela in 1807 via the United States, Bolívar freed all the slaves on his family estates. He spent the years between 1810 and 1825 in a series of hard-fought and bloody but brilliant military campaigns that freed the six modern-day countries from Spanish rule. But Bolívar's most important legacy was probably not his battlefield success but his fervent adherence to the ideals of justice, liberty and human dignity that formed the bedrock of the newly independent nations.
Bolívar famously admired the founding fathers of America, particularly George Washington, a fellow high-born farmer whose persistence and ardor accomplished independence. When Bolívar was born in 1783 Washington was bidding his soldiers farewell; the younger man grew up on the tales of his exploits and those of his compatriots, like the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom he deeply admired. Bolívar treasured the letters he received from both Lafayette and the Washington family, who called El Libertador "the Washington of the south."
MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE
General Marie Paul Joseph Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), embodied the idealistic zeal of his time, becoming a key figure in both the American and French Revolutions and then a link between George Washington, father of the United States, and Simón Bolívar, liberator of Latin America. Born to a wealthy landowning family with a history of distinguished military service, Lafayette as commissioned a French officer at age 13. A fervent believer in the justice of the American revolutionary cause, he traveled to the colonies, where, just 19, he was appointed a major-general. Between serving with distinction in the Battle of the Brandywine, the Battle of Rhode Island and the Siege of Yorktown, Lafayette also managed to travel home to France to enlist further financial support for the cause. During these years he became close to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and he and his heirs were made honorary citizens of the U.S. in perpetuity. Lafayette was to name his own son George Washington Lafayette. After returning to France in triumph Lafayette was elected to the Estates-General of 1789. Jefferson helped him write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
In 1824 President James Monroe invited the aging Lafayette to return to the U.S. as the nation’s guest. The Marquis spent 14 months in America, visiting all 24 states. He made his way to Mount Vernon to pay his respects at the grave of his friend, George Washington. Lafayette was greeted by veterans, cheering citizens and dignitaries throughout his trip, while each city vied to outdo the others in celebration and honors for the war hero. Simón Bolívar’s nephew and adopted son, Fernando Bolívar, had come to the U.S. in 1822 to attend Germantown Academy (later attending the newly established University of Virginia because of his uncle's great admiration of Thomas Jefferson). Lafayette met Fernando Bolívar in July 1825 when he went to Germantown to deliver an address. A great admirer of Simón Bolívar, Lafayette corresponded with him and famously named him 'the George Washington of Latin America'. At the request of the Washington family Lafayette sent to Bolívar on October 13, 1825 a portrait of the President, a lock of Washington’s hair and a gold medal with his likeness. It was likely at this time that Lafayette sent the Boutet pistols to Bolívar, as his personal gift to the younger revolutionary - who perhaps he saw as carrying on the torch he had, by then, put down. Bolivar wrote from Lima on March 20, 1826 in reply: “Ah, what mortal could ever be worthy of the honors that you and Mount Vernon see fit to lavish on me!”
Nicolas-Noël Boutet (1761-1833) was the premier gunsmith of France during an important period of arms manufacture. Son of a French royal gunsmith and son-in-law of another, Boutet survived the Revolution of 1789 to become an important gunsmith under the subsequent rise of Napoleon. Boutet was named Directeur Artiste of the newly formed Versailles Arms Manufactory in 1792 and in 1795 was appointed head of the newly created Arms de luxe department, responsible for richly decorated presentation arms suitable for military heroes or heads of state. Napoleon then made Boutet his chief gunsmith from 1800 to 1818. During this period Boutet was able to marry technical perfection and precision of workmanship with the finest decoration. Skilled crafts guilds had been disbanded with the decline of Louis XVI; Boutet hired many masters of silversmithing, lock-making and goldsmithing for his Versailles workshops. Working in the Empire idiom that took hold with Napoleon's rise and with the Mediterranean campaigns, Boutet fashioned the finest presentation arms of the period, richly embellishing them with the Graeco-Roman and Egyptian ornament that reflected the period's ideals of military honor and glory.
JOSE IGNACIO AND ENRIQUE PARIS
José Ignacio Paris belonged to a small, close-knit circle of friends and compatriots of Simón Bolívar who not only supported him with comradeship but also financially. Bolívar gave Paris La Quinta de Bolivar, the house he had received from the new government in gratitude for their liberation. Later, Paris commissioned a bronze statue of Bolívar from sculptor Pietro Genovese Tenerani that sits in the square now known as Bolívar-Bogota Plaza. Bolívar also gave José Ignacio París the Lafayette pistols. Enriqué Paris, son of Jose Ignacio, then sold the pistols to Senor Enriqué Grice, wealthy Anglo-Colombian and son-in-law of another Bolívar intimate, Juan de Francisco y Martin. Paris presented Grice with a signed document on letterhead of the Republic of Nueva Granda, Bogota, dated 7 July 1851 (accompanied by two affidavits attesting to Enriqué’s signature). The document (recorded in the 1973 Sotheby’s auction) stated that the pistols '…were presented by General Lafayette to his Excellency the Liberator of Colombia in 1825, and were presented by Bolívar as a gesture of friendship to Jose Ignazio Paris, the father of Enriqué Paris. The latter has now sold them to Senor Enriqué Grice who receives them in the same condition as that in which they were handed on by Simón Bolívar.'
EXHIBITED AT THE ROYAL UNITED SERVICES MUSEUM?
Intriguingly, Karl Baedeker's famous London guidebook, London & Its Environs, Handbook for Travellers, in annual editions beginning as early as 1889, notes '...cases containing... the pistols of Sir Ralph Abercromby, Bolivar, and Tippoo Sahib...' are amongst the highlights for visitors [to the Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall]. The Royal United Services Institute, known as RUSI, was founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington and includes an important research library of military affairs. This reference to Bolívar pistols at RUSI, which appears through at least some of the 1890s Baedeker editions but disappears sometime before 1906, may well refer to the present pair of pistols.
WILLIAM GOODWIN RENWICK
Born to a prosperous family in Davenport, Iowa, William Goodwin Renwick (1886-1971) spent his boyhood in Claremont, California and earned an L.L.B. at Harvard in 1913. He began amassing in the decades before WWII one of the premier firearms collections in modern history. The 1939 Bulletin of the City Art Museum of St. Louis report on its Renwick loan exhibition notes that “Half of them are known to have been at one time the personal property of emperors, kings, members of the European nobility, or other notable personages….objects de luxe, created for the richest and most critical personages of their time by the most skillful contemporary artists and craftsmen.” The collection was not just an assemblage of individual masterpieces, but, in its whole, told the
story of firearms development from the 14th to the 20th century. Renwick bequeathed a portion of the collection to the Smithsonian, where it as exhibited in 1975. The Renwick European firearms were offered in a series of ten single-owner auctions at Sotheby’s in London, held from 17 July 1972 through 17 June 1975 – landmark sales never equaled in the field of arms and armor.
OTHER IMPORTANT HISTORIC PAIRS OF PISTOLS AT AUCTION
Christie’s New York sold (17 November 2004, $1,690,000) an earlier and less elaborately decorated pair of pistols by Boutet that was given by Simón Bolívar to Ricardo Illingworth who, like José Ignacio París, was a member of Bolívar’s inner circle. This pair is now the property of the state of Venezuela. A single pistol belonging to Bolívar is held in the collection of the Museo Quinta de Bolívar in Bogotá. Very few of Bolívar’s other personal effects survive. A group of fourteen small Bolívar items was sold at Christie’s New York on 18 May 1988 by the descendants of Fernando Bolívar (Simón’s nephew and heir) to the Banco de Venezuela. Other important historic pistols sold at Christie’s New York include a cased pair of gold- and silver-mounted pistols by Tatham & Egg of London which had been presented to General Manuel Belgrano by the city of Buenos Aires in 1816 (21 November 2006, $374,000) and a pair of French flintlock holster pistols presented by Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette to General George Washington (18 January 2002, $1,980,000).