From Napoleon’s “Surrender Desk” to Queen Victoria’s Underwear, 5 of the Strangest Historical Items Ever Put Up for Auction
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812. Commissioned by Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton in 1811 and completed in 1812. Artist Jacques-Louis David. Photo: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
The next time you sign on to a Zoom call or settle in to watch some cute animal videos from your home office, imagine how it would feel to smooth your hand over a plank of wood that Napoleon Bonaparte’s five foot, six and a half inch frame once glided over.
An upcoming auction offers that and more. The feature piece up for bid at Hansons auction on March 22 is a desk made from the gangway timber Bonaparte walked over during his surrender to the British in 1815.
The desk also incorporates a French coin that Napoleon threw to a cabin boy aboard the ship. A plaque on the table tells the story: “Made of part of gangway of HMS Bellerophon, on which Bonaparte stepped when he surrendered off Rochefort, 1815. 5 Frc piece given by Bonaparte to E.Sones.”
Following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the French emperor and military commander surrendered to Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland aboard the HMS Bellerophon.
“It was a momentous historical moment and Captain Maitland later secured part of the gangway Napoleon stood on for posterity,” Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, said of the piece.
Collectors or those hoping to connect to a little history along with their Wi-Fi have Captain Maitland to thank for his foresight. Having the stray piece of wood made into a desk no doubt helped future generations hold onto the item over the years.
The decision seems to have paid off as well – quite literally. Not only has the desk remained in the Maitland family for more than 200 years, but the auction house has set a guide price of £40,000 to £60,000 (approx. $68,500 to $102,800, all subsequent amounts in approximate Canadian dollars). The auction also includes other items from the captain’s collection, including the couch Bonaparte stretched out on after boarding the ship.
The desk isn’t the strangest piece of Napoleonic history to be sold at auction. A particular – ahem – intimate appendage that was once attached to the general was bought at auction in 1977 by John J. Lattimer, a leading American urologist.
In fact, the fascination with historical or famous figures and the “artifacts” they leave behind knows no boundaries (except maybe Elvis’ soiled undies, but we’ll get to that later).
Here, we look back at five of the strangest historical items ever to have hit the auction block.
1. William Shatner’s Bold Push For Charity
William Shatner, a.k.a Captain Kirk, once sold a rare stone for $25,000 at auction. No, the Canadian acting legend didn’t get his hands on a ruby or diamond or a Star Trek prop from his first voyage to Neural. Instead, it was his own “man-made” kidney stone that he put on the auction block, with proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity.
“This takes organ donors to a new height, to a new low, maybe. How much is a piece of me worth?” he asked in an interview with CBS after the 2006 sale.
The winning bid came courtesy of online casino GoldenPalace.com, which boasts a collection of odd curios, including a partially eaten cheese sandwich thought to contain the image of the Virgin Mary.
“This is a bold new addition to our fleet,” the casino’s Chief Executive Officer Richard Rowe quipped in a statement following the purchase, playing up the Star Trek angle of the new acquisition.
Meanwhile, Shatner – with tongue firmly in cheek – indicated that the charitable windfall was well earned. The stone was so big, he said, “you’d want to wear it on your finger,” adding that “If you subjected it to extreme heat, it might turn out to be a diamond.”
Shatner pushed his way into the Guinness Book of World Records, logging the most expensive sale of a kidney stone ever. In 2021, over 20 years later, he would shatter yet another record aboard Blue Origin’s New Shephard, becoming the oldest person to enter space at the age of 90.
We get an inkling that he’ll be remembered more for the latter.
2. Love Me Loo
One Beatles fanatic took his obsession to new heights (or lows, depending on your perspective) when he bought a toilet that once belonged to the late John Lennon.
The white porcelain lavatory, which is adorned with a blue floral design, was removed from Lennon’s Tittenhurst Park estate in Berkshire and replaced with a new one when he lived there between 1969 and 1971. According to the original auction catalog, Lennon told the builders to “put some flowers in it or something.”
Builder John Hancock didn’t heed his advice. The toilet instead sat in Hancock’s shed for 40 years until his death. It then made its way to auction as part of Liverpool’s Beatleweek festival in 2010, where collector Gary Honniball paid $14,200 for the piece, beating out a flock of interested buyers and dwarfing pre-acution estimates, which were set between $1,000 to $1,500.
The piece likely attracted collectors not only for its connection to Lennon, but the locale to which it was attached – the estate where John Lennon recorded his iconic Imagine album and film.
Honniball, however, eventually grew tired of the throne and loaned it to the Liverpool Beatles Museum in 2022.
“He contacted us, told us that it was just sitting in his house, gathering dust, [and asked], ‘Would we like to put it on display in the museum?’” Roag Best, the museum’s owner and brother of original Beatles drummer Pete Best, told The Independent after the piece’s unveiling.
“We thought, ‘Well, it’s a bit quirky, it’s not what we’d normally display but who’s to say what you should and shouldn’t display, so, come on, we’ll give it a go.’”
3. No Secrets For Victoria
Something tells us Queen Victoria would be none too amused about how often a pair of her underpants has gone up for auction.
She would be even more piqued at all the interest around her size. In nearly every article written on the subject, a photo of the garment in question is seen proudly stretched out, with one from The Guardian going as far as featuring a shot of a slight man standing comfortably inside her bloomers.
And each time an undergarment is sold, the waist size is also revealed, with one auction house even using “the data” from a pair (45 inches, 115 cm) to date them back to the late 1890s.
“As there’s such a good photographic record of Queen Victoria, it’s possible to calculate her waist measurement over time, so we know roughly when she would have worn items of this size,” said Richard Edmonds, the auctioneer in charge of the 2015 auction, which sold a pair of the Victoria’s cotton knickers for $25,000.
4. Churchill’s “World-Saving” Teeth
A set of upper dentures belonging to Winston Churchill is certainly one of the more unique historical artifacts to have sold at auction, but their interesting backstory explains the handsome price one set fetched in 2010.
According to experts, the dentures in question – which sold for $23,000 – were specifically designed to be loose-fitting so that Churchill could maintain the unique diction made famous from his rousing Second World War-era radio broadcasts.
“From childhood, Churchill had a very distinctive natural lisp; he had trouble with his S’s,” Jane Hughes, head of learning at the Hunterian Museum in London where they display a replica set of the dentures, told The Guardian. “These are the teeth that saved the world.
“Churchill wanted to maintain [the lisp] because he was already so well known for it,” she added. “The dentures wouldn’t quite connect with the top of the mouth, but that was on purpose.”
The dentures were sold by the son of the dental technician who crafted three or four identical sets for the British prime minister.
According to Hughes, Churchill had been dogged by issues with his teeth from childhood and likely lost some quite early in his life.
In fact, the world leader thought so highly of his long-serving dentist Wilfred Fish that he nominated him for a knighthood in his final term as prime minister. Along with the letter informing Fish of the honour, Churchill included a set of the “world-saving” dentures the prominent dentist had designed.
“I am very glad it fell to me to recommend you for a well-deserved honour,” the letter read. “I enclose one set of dentures and I should be so much obliged if you would tighten them up a little for me. The others are working very well.”
5. Unwashed and Unsold
We’ll spare you the actual visual for this one. A pair of Elvis’ unwashed — and stained — briefs, which the late music icon wore during a 1977 concert under one of his signature white jumpsuits, failed to sell at auction in 2012, proving that there are some limits to the world’s obsession with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
We said “some limits.” While the item, which was framed behind glass – perhaps for sanitary reasons – didn’t attract any qualifying bids set by the $11,000 reserve price, the highest offer did reach a hefty $8,000.
Perhaps bidders were attracted to the auction’s more wholesome items. Put on by Omega Auctions to mark 35 years since Elvis’ death, the sale included a bible belonging to the music legend, which sold for $94,000. The gold-embossed book featured the singer’s handwritten notes, including an entry that read: “To judge a man by his weakest link or deed is like judging the power of the ocean by one wave.”
Other more sanitary items up for bid included a pair of shoes worn by the King, which sold for $10,400 and a movie contract he signed for the 1962 film Follow That Dream, which fetched $9,600.