The Jack Webb Collection of Medals and Militaria

To be Sold on: 20th August 2020

Estimate: £20,000 - £30,000

A magnificent Napoleonic Eagle of the First Empire

A so-called ‘Ship’s Pattern’ of 1804, the Imperial eagle cast in bronze, of high quality manufacture, very similar to the regimental model of 1804, but of considerably larger size, measuring 350mm in height by 305mm wide, identical in all respects with the known eagle of Le Tonnant (Musée de L’Empéri, Salon de Provence, France), mounted on a stepped plinth 155mm long x 83mm wide x 20mm deep, over a rectangular tablet 128mm long x 56mm wide x 48mm deep, the front of this pierced with two mounting-holes, with additional support fittings and pole-socket, this 117mm long and 30mm in diameter, an impressive and imposing piece of the highest rarity £20,000-£30,000

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A magnificent Napoleonic Eagle of the First Empire

A so-called ‘Ship’s Pattern’ of 1804, the Imperial eagle cast in bronze, of high quality manufacture, very similar to the regimental model of 1804, but of considerably larger size, measuring 350mm in height by 305mm wide, identical in all respects with the known eagle of Le Tonnant (Musée de L’Empéri, Salon de Provence, France), mounted on a stepped plinth 155mm long x 83mm wide x 20mm deep, over a rectangular tablet 128mm long x 56mm wide x 48mm deep, the front of this pierced with two mounting-holes, with additional support fittings and pole-socket, this 117mm long and 30mm in diameter, an impressive and imposing piece of the highest rarity £20,000-£30,000
Provenance: According to his family this Napoleonic eagle was purchased privately by Jack Webb from a ‘totter’ in the early 1970’s over the counter at his shop in Camden Market. The vendor at the time believed the eagle to have been an embellishment from a church lectern. This piece was one of Jack’s most coveted possessions and has never been publicly offered for sale before.

The condition is generally good for age and period. There are visible old repairs and solder joins which indicate that both wings have onetime been intentionally cut off at the shoulder, perhaps to enable better concealment or to avoid capture, and subsequently re-attached and gilded overall to disguise these repairs.

There are two other known examples that conform to this large pattern: the eagle of Le Tonnant, in the Musée de L’Empéri, Salon de Provence, France, which is in bronze and not gilded; and the eagle of L’Ocean, formerly in the Lévi collection, but with slight differences to the other two known examples and believed to be later than the First Empire. The eagle offered above is exactly identical with the eagle of Le Tonnant, including the particular fittings below the base tablet. The existence of these two ‘named’ eagles and the present example has led to the supposition that they are ship’s eagles, or ‘aigles de vaisseau’.

At the great distribution of eagles by Napoleon in Paris on 3 December, 1804, he proclaimed, “Soldiers! Behold your colours! These eagles will always be your rallying point! They will always be where your Emperor may think them necessary for the defence of his throne and of his people. Swear to sacrifice your lives to defend them, and by your courage to keep them constantly in the path of victory. Swear!”

And so the entire Imperial Army of Napoleon stood represented on the Champ de Mars: Imperial Guard, and Line, Cavalry and Artillery; the sailors of the Navy and the National Guard, each eagle-guard party ready to receive their own eagle from the hands of the Emperor himself. More than 1,000 eagles were given out on this day, 280 to cavalry regiments, some 600 to infantry, artillery and special corps, and between 40 and 50 to the Navy, one for every ship of the Line then in commission. A further 108 were given to the departmental legions of the National Guard which, for political reasons, Napoleon could not ignore. Every French line-of-battle ship was represented on the Champ de Mars and received its eagle from Napoleon, the ship’s deputation typically composed of three officers, three warrant officers, and four seamen, all decks sharing the honour.

It is of particular note that not a single French Imperial naval eagle came into British hands on board the thirty or so ships of the line that were captured by the Royal Navy between 1805 and 1814, which suggests that when under threat of capture they were easily hidden or even disposed of overboard to avoid the shame of such a loss.

At Trafalgar, an officer on board the French flagship, the Bucentaure, described how, at the outset of the battle, on the approach of the Victory when a collision appeared inevitable, Admiral Villeneuve siezed the eagle of the Bucentaure and held it up to the sailors around him. “My friends,” he called out, “I am going to throw this on board the English ship! We will go and fetch it back or die!” There was, of course, no eagle thrown aboard the Victory, nor was one found in the Bucentaure during the two days the ship was in Royal Navy possession before being wrecked in the storm outside Cadiz harbour. Nor too were any eagles found on any of the other prizes taken at that great battle, which would indicate that the French went to great lengths to avoid any of their precious eagles falling into enemy hands.