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“I am the Austin Powers of the art world!” hollers Pierre-Jean Chalençon, the exuberant French collector who looks more like a rock star than a connoisseur of objets d’art relating to Napoleon Bonaparte. Chalençon opens the doors to the Palais Vivienne — his warren of First Empire treasures in the heart of Paris’s second arrondissement — sporting a giant medallion crafted from a portrait miniature (depicting Napoleon in profile, naturally).
Chalençon, 47, has amassed one of the world’s largest private Napoleonic collections, more than 2,000 objects at the last count, although “it’s stupid to ask”, he says. He pulls a coronation baton from a cabinet and proceeds to anoint me, tapping the wooden and silver-gilt rod on my shoulders. The baton, bought for €100,000 at auction, was used to proclaim Napoleon emperor at his coronation at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral in 1804.
This stunning historical piece is one of more than 20 works drawn from the Chalençon collection due to go on show in a special exhibition at the 30th edition of La Biennale Paris. Other items include a Madras scarf worn by Napoleon during his exile to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic after his banishment from mainland Europe.
“Everybody is expecting to see Napoleon’s hats; I want to show something much more personal, which is why I chose a bandanna,” Chalençon says. The cotton scarf comes from the estate of Abbé Ange Paul Vignali, Napoleon’s chaplain.
Chalençon is happy to be a star attraction at La Biennale Paris this year. “I am a child of the Biennale. I have been buying works there, such as manuscripts, since I was 18. Twenty years ago, I featured in the Biennale catalogue as a ‘young collector’. Now I am the guest of honour,” he says.
“There have been problems; former presidents [of the Biennale] have tried to change the format and introduce more jewellery dealers. But it is the storehouse of Europe for objets d’art. I find prices at Tefaf Maastricht too high,” Chalençon adds.
Jean-Claude Dey, a Paris-based specialist in Napoleonic memorabilia who was a consultant on the Chalençon exhibition, describes it as “one of the most important collections of the First French Empire”.
Paintings, furniture, tapestries and coats of arms acquired at auction and galleries fill the lavish Palais Vivienne. “That’s a copy of the famous painting by François Gérard,” Chalençon says, indicating an instantly recognisable imperial portrait of Napoleon, showing him in the Throne Room of the Tuileries Palace, that dominates the salon.
“Napoleon created France as we know it today,” he says. But surely the bombastic general is one of the most divisive figures in European history? “He created the Civil Code [set of laws] which they are following in the US and China,” Chalençon counters. “He is a megastar, even in the modern world. He was a visionary in music and architecture, even though his reign lasted only 10 years [1804-14].”
Chalençon’s tour of the 18th-century Palais reveals some fascinating treasures. “Here is Napoleon’s wedding certificate to Josephine,” he says, pointing to the ornate document from 1804, bought at auction for €25,000 (the US billionaire Christopher Forbes consigned the piece as part of a sale at Osenat in 2016). The certificate is signed by Cardinal Joseph Fesch.
The provenance of the piece is impressive, but how does he check the authenticity of artefacts such as this, which come from so many disparate sources? “It’s not too difficult for furniture, as the items should be stamped. But something in fabric, it’s difficult,” Chalençon admits, stressing that he consults experts at the Louvre and the National Museum of the Château de Malmaison in western Paris, which was Napoleon Bonaparte’s private estate.
Chalençon’s father, a journalist, ignited his interest in military matters by taking him to Château de Malmaison as a young boy. Napoleon gripped his imagination. At the age of 14, Chalençon acquired his first piece: a proclamation by the prefect of the Bouches-du-Rhône announcing the return of Napoleon from Elba to Paris in 1815. He used his student loan money to buy the late emperor’s will.
“I left school at 18 and worked for an antique dealer in New York called Roger Prigent, who specialised in early 19th-century art and antiques. For eight years, I bought works for him and he re-sold them to a lot of famous people in America. I made a lot of money, which I re-invested in Napoleonic art,” he says. But working for Christie’s and Osenat at the turn of the century was not his “cup of tea”, he says, adding that he “could never buy an apartment on those salaries”.
Asked how he makes money, Chalençon points to his burgeoning TV career. He is currently the charismatic star of a popular daily programme on the France2 channel called Affaire Conclue (in the show, members of the public try to sell miscellaneous items to a panel of specialists). He is also in discussion with the Himalayas Museum in Shanghai about mounting an exhibition of his holdings, which could prove lucrative.
Selling on the secondary market can also be profitable. “I bought at Christie’s five years ago a box owned by King Jérôme [Napoleon’s younger brother] for €70,000; I resold it in France for €350,000. I make good money; I have a good eye,” he says. Last year, he consigned several items to a sale at Christie’s in London, including a sculpted portrait of the Emperor by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (estimated at £10,000-£15,000; sold for £10,000).
He plans to introduce public tours at Palais Vivienne in the next few years, which will boost revenue. Restoring the place, with its ornate decor and copious gold leaf, cost at least €300,000, he claims. His plans for the future involve creating a foundation for the collection, and keeping it at Rue Vivienne, rather than donating it to the French state.
Mention the government and Chalençon launches into impassioned invective, railing against what he sees as the failure of ministers to protect French heritage. “It is very sad; French patrimony [is leaving the country] every day,” he exclaims. Losing out on key Bonaparte works riles him just as much. Seeing a golden laurel leaf cut from the coronation crown of Napoleon go to another buyer at auction last year clearly rattled him. “Regrets, I have a few. I did it my way,” he says, bursting into a tune. I can hear him singing as I leave the Palais Vivienne.
September 8-16, labiennaleparis.com