French rain terror on Robespierre manuscripts sale

Robespierre by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1786Sotheby’s Paris is offering a previously unknown collection of Maximilien Robespierre’s personal papers for sale tomorrow, and French historical societies and political parties (particularly leftist ones) are not happy about it.

The 116 pages, all handwritten by Robespierre between January 1792 and his death in July 1794, include drafts and notes for five articles and four speeches, plus one letter written to an unknown correspondent on the difficult relationship between Happiness and Liberty, a central question in Robespierre’s political philosophy. Not only do these spontaneous writings illustrate Robespierre’s dynamic thought processes, but they also cover some of the most important moments in French history.

Robespierre papersOne of the papers details his opposition to allowing King Louis XVI to live and describes how Convention members who supported clemency for the king grouped to the right of the hall, while those who wanted to separate his neck from his head stood to the left. That division in the chamber would be the foundation of the political terminology of right (reactionary, conservative, royalist) and left (revolutionary, liberal, socialist).

Another document, perhaps the most historically significant of the lot, is a draft of Robespierre’s 8 Thermidor (July 26th) speech to the Convention wherein he defends himself against charges of dictatorship and warns darkly of conspirators acting against the Revolution in the Convention itself but refuses to name names. The next day the Convention declared Robespierre an outlaw according to the Law of Suspects that Robespierre et al. had passed just two months earlier so they could arrest and execute people without trial or even evidence. He was arrested at the Hôtel de Ville along with this brother Augustin and BFF Saint-Just, among others. The day after that he was guillotined, without questioning, trial or appeal, along with Saint-Just and a dozen of their coterie.

Robespierre death mask, taken by Madame Tussaud from his freshly guillotined headWith Robespierre at the Hôtel de Ville on 9 Thermidor was Phillipe Le Bas, a close friend and comrade who shot himself to death rather than be taken alive, as Robespierre had tried to do but only succeeded in shooting off his own jaw. Le Bas was married to Élisabeth Duplay, a younger daughter of Maurice Duplay, Robespierre’s landlord. Her eldest sister Éléonore Duplay was reputed to be Robespierre’s mistress (after his death, she wore black the rest of her life and was known as “La Veuve Robespierre,” i.e., the widow Robespierre) and she hid many of his papers before being herself arrested. The documents coming up for auction now have been kept in the Le Bas family for over 200 years.

Given the momentous history covered in these documents and the new insights on Robespierre’s thoughts they can provide historians, it comes as little surprise that the French are not at all keen to see them sold to God-knows-who and end up God-knows-where. The Society for Robespierre Studies has been raising money to try to buy the documents while also petitioning the French national archives and the culture ministry to buy them for the nation. The Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Left party have asked the the Ministry of Culture to “make every effort to ensure that such records of inestimable value to the history of the French Revolution and Robespierre’s political action can be preserved in our national institutions.”

On Thursday Patrick Ollier, the Minister of Relations with Parliament, responded to the parties that the Ministry is on the case and will take care of its responsibilities. That’s vague enough to mean nothing at all, but France does have a handy legal mechanism to stop these sorts of sales from happening. It’s called the right of preemption and the way it works is, once the hammer falls on the sale, a government representative announces to the room that what was just sold is “subject to the right of preemption of state.” The government then has 15 days to decide whether it wants to purchase the property for hammer price plus buyer’s premium or let it go.

Should make for an interesting day at the auction hall.

4 thoughts on “French rain terror on Robespierre manuscripts sale

  1. “An interesting day at the auction hall”?! I would have said, “A Perfect Storm”, considering (1)the French National Character, and (2) the Sotheby’s National Character (in real terms, auction houses figure as non-territorial states.) As per usual, Sotheby’s is offering less than full disclosure regarding provenance, “Philippe Le Bas, and thus by descent.” Yeah, right! I am sure that a lot of lawyers are now analyzing every change of hands over the last two centuries!

  2. I never fail to be amazed at how brazenly auction houses continue not to give a rat’s ass about where the things they sell came from. David Gill over at Looting Matters is constantly busting them selling antiquities from the Medici polaroids, and unless a country makes a huge public stink, they just putter right along happily. Is somebody at Sotheby’s and Christie’s going to have to do some hard time before they start caring about whether they’re fencing stolen goods?

  3. “Hard time”?! Even Dante Alighieri could not devise time that was hard enough to make those folks rethink their divine right to commit brazen smash and grab. And they are surrounded by “enablers” of every description. (Believe me…I know!)

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