Historic flintlock pistols take aim at auction record
A pair of early superbly-crafted 19th century rifled flintlock pistols that link three of the greatest revolutionary heroes of the New World are headed for auction at Christie's in New York. A presentation pair of pistols given by General Marie Paul Joseph Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, to Simon Bolivar, will go under the hammer on April 13, with estimates putting the price at a record-setting level of between US$1.5 million and $2.5 million.
In 2002, Christie's set the record for the highest price realized at auction for firearms when a pair of saddle pistols given by Lafayette to George Washington were knocked down for $1,986,000. This time, the auction house may exceed that price as it offers a pair of pistols made by French master gunsmith Nicolas-Noel Boutet, which link together not only Lafayette and Washington, but Bolivar as well.
Through the ornate flintlock pistols were made in a pair, they are not what is commonly called "dueling pistols," which are highly specialized weapons for settling affairs of honor. Instead, the Boutet pair are a presentation set. In the 18th century and later, such sets were a common item for paying respects to military men and were notable for their high degree of workmanship and decoration.
According to Christie's, this pair was made at Versailles for Lafayette, a French Aristocrat who was a hero of the American Revolution. A commissioned officer in France at only 13-years old, at the age of 19 he sailed to the New World and joined the Continental Army where he became a protege of General Washington with the rank of Major General.
Aiding the revolutionary forces both on the battlefield and diplomatically, he was rewarded for his efforts with both he and his heirs being made honorary American citizens in perpetuity. After the war, he returned to France and became a key figure in the French Revolution and one of the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Retiring from public life in protest at the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, Lafayette made a grand tour of the United States in 1825, where he was greeted as a war hero. It was during this time that he sent the specially commissioned pistols to Bolivar, the military leader and liberator of six Latin American countries from the Spanish Empire – modern day Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador – who would soon fall from power as his dream of spreading his revolution and welding the liberated territories into a single nation collapsed.
Lafayette was an admirer of Bolivar and corresponded with him as well as naming him the "George Washington of Latin America." Along with the pistol pair, at the request of Washington's family, Lafayette also sent a portrait of the then-deceased Washington, a lock of the late President's hair, and a medal struck with Washington's likeness after the siege of Yorktown during the Revolutionary War. Bolivar respond in March 20, 1826 in a letter saying, "Ah, what mortal could ever be worthy of the honors that you and Mount Vernon see fit to lavish on me!"
The maker of the pistols was Nicolas-Noël Boutet, who was Gunsmith Ordinary to Louis XVI and Gunsmith to Napoleon Bonaparte. His firearms are notable for their construction and precision workmanship while preserving many skills in silversmithing, lock-making and goldsmithing that were neglected after the French Revolution.
The pistols themselves are flintlocks featuring blued and gilt swamped octagonal barrels with multi-groove rifling, which provides much greater accuracy – though in a muzzleloading firearm this makes them slow to load and difficult to clean. The woodwork is of Grenoble walnut and sports engraved panels of foliage, Empire-style ornaments, and engraved and gilt breeches each struck with three maker's marks, which was a distinct feature of Boutet's weapons.
Since this was a presentation pair, they are a bit ostentatious, with engraved and gilt tangs, silver fore-sights, gold-lined rainproof priming-pan, and ornaments showing classical figures, such as Medusa, Hercules, a winged Victory, a dragon, a wolf, and a scene showing the battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths at the wedding feast of Peirithous. Each pistol is signed "N.N. BOUTET A VERSAILLE" and "MANUFACTURE ROYALE A VERSAILLE."
The pair are set in a silver-bound wood veneer case dated 1825. The case is lined in green velvet and includes a bullet mold, silver-gilt-mounted powder-flask with sprung nozzle, and other accessories needed to shoot and maintain such pistols.
"Every once in awhile, we are lucky enough to work with something at Christie's that connects us to the giants of history, so that they jump off the pages of the history books and seem alive," says Christie's specialist Becky MacGuire. "These pistols are a perfect example, serving as a link between three revolutionary heroes: George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Simon Bolívar."
The video below gives a tour of the pistol pair.