Pierre-Jean Chalençon began collecting artefacts related to Napoleon Bonaparte in his teens. Ahead of the 14 June sale of items from his collection, he discusses his favourite pieces and how his Napoleon complex began
Pierre-Jean Chalençon’s fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte was immediate and total. As a child, his parents gave him a cartoon book on the Emperor, and Chalençon was hooked. Now, at the age of 46, Chalençon’s private stock of Napoleon-related artefacts comprises thousands of objects and works of art.
In the Interiors sale on 14 June at Christie’s South Kensington, a selection of pieces will be offered from his collection, including several that are particularly dear to Chalençon. Ahead of the sale, we spoke to the Paris-based collector who freely describes himself as ‘still completely obsessed with Napoleon’.
How did you first get interested in Napoleon, and how did you begin collecting?
Pierre-Jean Chalençon: ‘For me, Napoleon was like Superman or Batman. My parents gave me a book about the Emperor when I was around eight years old. At first I thought he was a superhero — a storybook character who surely never lived. But my parents said, “No, he really existed”.
‘Some time after that, I visited the Château de Malmaison [Napoleon’s last residence in France before his exile to Saint Helena]. When I saw the room where Napoleon had lived, it was love at first sight.’
What was one of your earliest acquisitions?
PJG: ‘I began collecting when I was in my teens, and I still have the first piece I ever bought — a book in red Morocco leather from Napoleon’s library. I paid for it with my earnings from military service. At first it was just a book here or there. It was a bit impulsive.’
How do you go about collecting today? Has your strategy evolved over the years?
PJG: ‘Above all, my goal is to acquire objects that could be displayed in a museum. I’m only looking for objects that are exceptional or unique, even if they’re simple. That has really never changed.’
What has made you decide to sell these pieces now?
PJG: ‘I’m looking for the very best pieces, which means that I often need to sell parts of my collection to make room for new ones. But the objects that I’m offering now are still exceptional. In many cases, they are among the pieces dearest to me, that I’ve had since I was young. Still, we can’t keep everything — I’m not the king of England and I don’t have 50 castles!
‘Part of being a good collector is knowing how to separate oneself from important pieces. I see it as passing the baton, and it’s nice to know that these objects will enter the collections of others who will be able to say, “I bought these from Chalençon”.’
Of the pieces you’re offering now, can you talk about some of your favourites?
PJG: ‘The 1811 cognac, from Napoleon’s cellar at Fontainebleau, is amazing. What an incredible opportunity for a collector to be able to say he can drink a cognac that dates from the time of Napoleon. It’s an extraordinary luxury.
‘I also love the Portrait de Marie Thérèse Étiennette Bourgoin by Henri-François Riesener. Mademoiselle Bourgoin was a mistress of Napoleon — she was a bit of a flirt, and it’s a very beautiful painting.
‘Then there’s the English faience bowl made for Napoleon when he was at Saint Helena. The ‘laureat’ decoration around the rim caused a bit of a scandal — it suggested that its British makers still considered Napoleon the leader of France.’
What plans do you have for your collection?
PJG: ‘I bought the Palais Vivienne 18 months ago. It’s an extraordinary space — 600 square metres in central Paris, built around 1706. I have fully restored it, and the goal is to eventually display my collection there, and to open it to the public in a few years.
‘My dream would be to create a space in the mould of the Wallace Collection [the London collection of porcelain, sculpture, decorative objects, paintings, furniture, arms and armour], and make it a living museum. In redecorating it, I tried to make it a bit like a palace.
‘There are only a very few private palaces left in Paris. I’ve begun moving in my collection — so far there are about 300 pieces in the Palais Vivienne.’
What pieces would you love to see come up for market?
PJG: ‘My dream would be to get a hold of Napoleon’s redingote [double-breasted topcoat], or one of his uniforms. Also his eyeglasses — I know there’s a pair out there but it hasn’t come up for auction.’
What’s the most unusual piece in your collection?
PJG: ‘Well, I do have Napoleon’s toothpaste.’
And finally, what is it about Napoleon that you find so fascinating after all these years?
PJG: ‘Napoleon was the descendant of immigrants; he was not a native French speaker. At first, when he arrived on the mainland from Corsica, he considered himself an immigrant. But in a relatively short time, he became Emperor. I have always been very drawn to the fact that, ultimately, Napoleon was a self-made man.’