Indeed, he meant it literally: He said he made his living from his interest in this particular slice of the past.
He was speaking from the Palais Vivienne, his grand historic home in the centre of Paris, built in the early 18th century for a minister of Louis XIV. Not only does he live there and store some of the 1500 to 2000 objects in the collection there, he also rents it out for events like weddings.
“It’s a 300-year-old building where almost everything is intact,” Chalençon said. But he has stuffed a lot into the gilded envelope: Napoleon-themed paintings, ceramics, books and manuscripts, and furniture. Some of it was owned or used by the emperor himself; other items are depictions of him or high-end homages, or were owned by members of his family.
The collection includes one of Napoleon’s wedding certificates, which Chalençon bought from Forbes (it had originally been collected by his father, Malcolm Forbes). Chalençon also owns an armchair circa 1801 by renowned furniture maker Georges Jacob; it was in the Tuileries Palace during Napoleon’s reign. And the collector doesn’t treat it like a museum piece: “I use it,” he said.
Chalençon is probably the world’s “most significant” collector of Napoleona, said Paul Gallois, an associate specialist in European furniture and works of art at Christie’s London.
“Only a family member would have more,” Gallois added.
Other items in Chalençon’s possession include the emperor’s coronation baton, as well as a madras scarf he used when in exile on St Helena, the second of his two banishments. Also on display is a rare goblet and set of cutlery seized from Napoleon’s carriage during the Battle of Waterloo.
The fact that Waterloo – the Dutch city (now in Belgium) where the British and Prussians defeated the emperor – has become synonymous with the concept of downfall highlights the hold that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) still has on imaginations, particularly Gallic ones.
Napoleon may have ruled for only about 15 years, but his empire-expanding mindset, brilliant victories like the one at Austerlitz and his grandiose style continue to resonate.
“It’s very French to collect these things,” Chalençon said, perhaps understating the case.
But Castelbajac, who designed the Biennale exhibition of Chalençon’s trove, as well other elements of the fair as its guest creative director, said the collector was also an outlier in at least one way.
“With this material, you expect someone older and conservative,” Castelbajac said. “But he’s a rock ‘n’ roll collector.”
Chalençon said he identified with the famously brash ruler. “Napoleon was a self-made man,” he said. “And I am a self-made man.”
He was born and raised in the suburbs west of Paris to a family he called “simple,” adding that his trajectory showed that “a guy from nowhere” could have “dreams come true”.
His lifelong obsession began early, he said. “I was eight years old and my father gave me sketchbooks about Napoleon,” Chaleçon said. “After I finished, I asked him, ‘Was he real?'”
When he was told yes, the wheels started spinning. “I said, ‘Wow, I want to go to his house,'” Chalençon recalled. They went to Château de Malmaison, Napoleon’s last residence in France, which is now a museum.
“I met him when he was only 19, when I was the director there,” said Chevallier, who is also the author of a book on the Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife. (She bought the Malmaison, a country retreat, in 1799.)
“He was fond of Napoleon,” Chevallier said. “I should say: crazy for him, actually.”
Having known Chalençon for decades, Chevallier said one defining characteristic of the collector was, “For him, business is business,” notably that “sometimes he sells a part of the collection to get new items”.
In June 2017, Chalençon offered a suite of about 30 objects at Christie’s London. “Great collectors are always upgrading,” said Gallois, of Christie’s.
After 20 years of actively collecting his specialty, Chalençon is still chasing new treasures, not all of which make it into his net. Late last year, he was outbid on a piece of gold from one of Napoleon’s crowns. It sold for about $750,000 to a Chinese collector, he said.
Asked whether this constituted a personal Waterloo, Chalençon was quick with a retort.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “But it was not an Austerlitz, either.”
The New York Times
The New York Times