About That Napoleon Hat Bryan Goldberg Bought…
Did the French emperor ever truly wear the hat that the CEO of BDG spent $1.43 million on? The 27-year-old Scottish aristocrat who originally bought it while touring Europe sure thought so!
After Bryan Goldberg, CEO of BDG which publishes Bustle and Gawker, won an auction of one of Napoleon’s bicorne hats for €1,222,500 (or $1.43 million), much of the playful coverage drew comparisons between the BDG founder and the emperor himself. But, in some ways, a closer parallel can be drawn between Goldberg and the hat’s original owners, Scotland’s Shaw Stewart line of baronets, one of whom, per its provenance, bought it as a souvenir while visiting France.
Less than a month after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814 and the beginning of his exile to the island of Elba, 27-year-old Michael Shaw Stewart, not yet a baronet, set off for Europe. Over the two years of his grand tour, he passed through France, Germany, Italy, and Elba, where he met Napoleon’s mother and brother but missed the former emperor who had already set off to reclaim his throne in the Hundred Days War of 1815. On August 26, 1814, Shaw Stewart toured the Palais Brühl-Marcolini in Dresden, where Napoleon had briefly lived the year before. The keeper of the palace claimed to have been given the hat by Napoleon’s valet and also told the young visitor that Napoleon had worn the hat seven years earlier during his victory at the Battle of Friedland and at the signing of the Treaties of Tilsit, which led to an alliance between France and Russia. He offered to sell it for two English guineas, which would be about $200 today. In his diary, Shaw Stewart called the hat “the most valuable and curious acquisition by far I have yet made in my travels.”
There’s some, sometimes slight, degree of uncertainty about the authenticity of most Napoleon hats. “I understand that Napoleon had two new hats every six months, two in winter weight and two in summer weight. If you count just the period from 1800 until his death in 1821, then he had more than 80 hats. Then you must think about the hats that were not Napoleon’s but look similar,” Martin Lancaster, a Napoleonic reenactor and the co-author of Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion, told The Fine Print. “There are very few of his hats that have a secure provenance and they are in the major museums. The other hats may be just wishful thinking, a new holy grail.” No amount of archival research will bestow absolute certainty on a grail seeker. “I could tell you exactly what Napoleon did in 1807. There is a book that lists his daily activities,” Lancaster said, “but which hat he wore will never be known.”
However, Lancaster doesn’t outright dismiss the probability that Goldberg’s hat belonged to Napoleon. “Souvenirs of Napoleon were sought during his reign and afterward, and his valets did trade in his clothes and hats,” he said. “Some have been lucky enough to find DNA to support, or even surpass, the security of the provenance. Perhaps in the not too distant future it will be possible to find his sweat, although many have the inner headband missing.”
Others are less skeptical about this particular hat. “While there is often at least some doubt that any given historical object was at a particular historical event, this hat seems quite likely to have been at Tilsit,” said J. David Markham, president of the International Napoleonic Society and knight of the Order of the French Academic Palms. “While nothing is ever 100 percent (for example we have to take [Sir Shaw Stewart’s] word, which I think in this case is reasonable), I’d say this comes pretty close.”
Goldberg will brook no dissent regarding his prize bicorne. “There can be zero doubt as to the hat’s authenticity,” a BDG spokesperson said in a statement. “It has remarkable provenance and has been carefully inspected by every authority on the matter. Mr. Goldberg is proud to own what is likely the best preserved and most well-documented of The Emperor’s hats.”
Even after returning home with the plunder of his grand tour, the future 6th Baronet of Greenock and Blackhall had an abiding interest in symbolically linking himself to names of historical significance. In 1819, Shaw Stewart married a purported descendant of Pocahontas, and in 1830 he acquired a supposed cutting from the mane of Napoleon’s favorite white charger Marengo, the horse in two versions of Jacques-Louis David’s painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps. But Shaw Stewart’s life touched history’s deep currents in less symbolic ways too. When his father died in 1825, he inherited the baronet title as well as plantations in Trinidad and Tobago, which held enslaved people. In 1831, he presented a petition in the House of Commons advocating for compensation enslavers in exchange for liberating the enslaved.
In 1836, the 6th Baronet died. A year earlier, he’d suffered “a fall from his horse about a twelvemonth ago,” according to contemporary records, “to which, at the time, he paid no attention,” leading to “an inflammation of the spine.” His son inherited Ardgowan, the family’s Scottish estate, the baronet title, and Napoleon’s hat. Even as Ardgowan’s fortunes declined in the years that followed, the hat became a fixture. In 1941 when the Luftwaffe dropped bombs nearby, all of the house’s east-facing windows were blown out, but the hat survived. Even as the aristocracy lost its luster and the family moved into the center of the house, largely abandoning the wings and selling off some of the antique furniture, the Shaw Stewarts held onto the Napoleonic relic. Eccentric family traditions grew up around the hat. “It was mandatory for guests staying in the house to put it on and march around the hall,” the 12th (and current) Baronet, Sir Ludovic Houston Shaw Stewart, or Ludo, as he signs his emails, told a travel company’s blog in 2018.
Ludo, who declined The Fine Print’s interview request, became a baronet at age 17 after his father died in 2004. During his first decade with the title, he worked as an art dealer at Sotheby’s in London, but in 2014, he decided to move back to Ardgowan. He’s since turned the home into a tourist attraction that has hosted weddings and fitness boot camps, and he’s planning to build a whiskey distillery this year. At first, according to the BBC, he’d considered selling the house. Instead, he parted with some artifacts, including Napoleon’s hat. In 2015, he took it to Christie’s, his former competitors, at a hammer price of £386,500 (or about $594,000), it passed out of the family. Six years later, it came up for sale again, this time at Sotheby’s, and that’s where Goldberg bought it for roughly two and half times its previous price.
The CEO told Gawker last year that he planned to wear the hat. “If Napoleon were alive, he would insist that I wear the hat,” he said. The ethics of handling such a historically valuable artifact can be tricky. “As a collector of Napoleonic items, I certainly understand the desire to own something as historic as this, and I assume that it will be kept in a setting geared towards the preservation of his collection,” said Markham. “I’ll admit I’d be tempted to pose for a photo of me wearing it, but only once. It should otherwise never leave its protective, and very elegant, case. I would hope that he would eventually give it to a museum for permanent display.”
Even if Goldberg takes every precaution to protect the hat, Lancaster believes that wearing a Napoleonic bicorne is not so simple as placing an old hat on one’s head. He has advice for any would-be-reenactors: “Real reenactment is not merely dressing up; that is cosplay or something that little children do,” he wrote in an Instagram post last summer, which showed him posing in period costume in the preserved home of Napoleon’s adopted son. “Real reenacting also requires that you have the correct implements or tools; you must also know how to use them and be in the correct type of location.” Still, Lancaster doesn’t begrudge Goldberg having some fun with his treasured acquisition, even if there’s room for doubt about its authenticity. “Like any form of hero worship, it requires a little bit of faith. But all that really matters is that the owner believes he has an item of emotional contact to the emperor. Most people will be 99 percent happy, but that is true with all aspects of faith,” he said. “I’d be happy with it!”
This story originally reported an incorrect price that Goldberg paid for his hat. The €1,222,500 sale price includes Sotheby’s buyer’s premium.