A unique pair of pistols with a connection to two great revolutionary leaders — the Marquis de Lafayette and Simón Bolívar — and an association with a third — George Washington — are coming up for auction next week and may very well break the record for pistols sold at auction. They will be on the auction block at the Exceptional Sale on April 13th at Christie’s New York with a pre-sale estimate of $1,500,000-2,500,000.
The pair of silver-mounted rifled flintlocks were made by French gunsmith Nicolas Noël Boutet in 1824. They were a gift from Lafayette to Bolívar, the Venezuelan military leader who played a pivotal role in the South American revolutions against Spain and was instrumental in winning independence for Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and his namesake Bolivia. Bolívar had been an admirer of the luminaries of the American Revolution since he was a young boy, identifying particularly with George Washington, who like him, was raised a gentleman farmer.
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!”
Lafayette’s pistols were not the first set by Boutet owned by Bolívar. He was an avid collector of firearms and is known to have owned at least one other pair of elegant pistols made by Boutet in his Versailles workshop. Bolívar acquired them during a sojourn in Paris in 1804 shortly after he was widowed at the young age of 21 and years before he became El Libertador. The precise circumstances and date of this acquisition are not known, but he may have had a very relevant personal reason for possessing the pistols. During his year in Paris, Bolívar was ushered into society by his lover Countess Fanny du Villars, wife of Count Dervieu de Villars, a retired Napoleonic colonel who spent most of his time at his country estate in Lyons, leaving his much younger wife to party as hard as she wished. Consequently, she had more than one lover (as did Bolívar), one of whom was Eugène de Beauharnais, Josephine’s son and Napoleon’s stepson, then only 19 years old and already a general. She enjoyed playing the two against each other.
One evening, she asked Eugène which animal Simón most resembled and Eugène said “moineau” (sparrow). That was less than flattering as it was, but Bolívar misheard it as “mono (monkey) and was enraged. He challenged Eugène to a duel on the spot. Fanny convinced him he hadn’t been called a monkey and tempers cooled, but it’s possible that exchange persuaded Bolívar to buy a pair of dueling pistols from the country’s premier gunsmith. It’s also possible that Fanny bought them for him as a playful present.
Although we know from letters and contemporary accounts that Simón Bolívar had many firearms in his collection, only five are known to have survived. There’s the pair going up for auction on the 13th, the Fanny-era pair and one single pistol now in a museum. The dueling pistols sold at Christie’s New York in 2004 for $1,687,500.
George Washington pistols are also very rare — only five pairs are known — and one pair of them holds the current record for pistols sold at auction. It’s a pair of steel saddle-mounted pistols by gunsmith Jacob Walster which the Marquis de Lafayette brought with him in 1777 when he traveled to the nascent United States fight in the Revolutionary War. Lafayette gave the pistols to Washington during the war, and Washington is thought to have carried them at Valley Forge, Monmouth, Yorktown, and, once he was President, during the Whiskey Rebellion. Two decades after his death, they were given to a future US President, Andrew Jackson, by William Robinson, husband of Washington’s grand-niece. With so illustrious an ownership history, it’s not entirely surprising that the guns sold for $1,986,000 in 2002. They were bought by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and are now on display at the Fort Ligonier museum in Pennsylvania.
Unlike Washington’s saddle pistols, there’s no evidence the Lafayette-Bolívar pistols saw actual combat. Even so, with their impeccable ownership history, extreme rarity and connection to the Revolutionary War heroes, they could well blow through that figure.