Major collection of Horatio Nelson memorabilia to be auctioned

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

LONDON -- For nearly 200 years they have lain in a vault: the bloodstained silk coin purse Adm. Horatio Nelson carried to his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, and letters written by his wife and her rival in love, the legendary Emma Hamilton.

Auctioneers Sotheby's on Monday displayed what Tom Pocock, biographer of Britain's greatest naval hero, has called "the most remarkable Nelsonian archive and collection to be discovered for more than a century."

The collection, including an anchor-shaped diamond brooch, is to be auctioned Oct. 21 -- Trafalgar Day, named for the 1805 battle in which Nelson's forces destroyed the French fleet and established Britain as the world's foremost naval power.

Martyn Downer, head of jewelry at Sotheby's, said the collection belonged to descendants of Alexander Davison, Nelson's close friend and banker, and were only discovered when the Davison family asked him to value the diamond brooch, which bears the initials HN.

"To find this stuff was heart-stopping -- I realized I was handling history," he said.

Downer said he was very moved to find the green drawstring purse -- "the intimacy of it was amazing -- to think that this had been hidden away for so long," he said.

Purse yields gold coins

Downer said the purse contained the 21 gold coins that Nelson placed in it on the morning of his death, and would have hung from his clothing. But he said the blood could be anyone's: "By the time Nelson fell, the deck of his ship, the Victory, was awash with blood," he said. The purse is expected to fetch up to $120,000.

Dated 1800, the diamond brooch is believed to have been a gift to Nelson, possibly from a monarch or dignitary.

It is expected to sell for $225,000.

Also in the collection are 72 letters from Frances Nelson to Davison, charting what Downer calls her progress from "worry to suspicion, then despair" over her husband's relationship with Hamilton, wife of a British ambassador, which began in 1798.

In one letter she writes, that she has "... A want of confidence in keeping anything from you. ... I will relate to you a thing which seems nothing, but coming from Lady Hamilton I am certain some mischief is brewing. ..."

Peter Beal, Sotheby's English manuscript specialist, said, "It is now impossible to read this series of letters without a sense of dramatic irony, since we know so much about what was going on with Nelson at that time, which she did not then know."

Letters offer insight

Emma Hamilton was a famous beauty, the daughter of a blacksmith, whose affairs scandalized society. She was the mistress of Charles Greville -- an associate of leaders of the day -- then became the mistress of his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, ambassador to Naples, whom she married in 1791.

Nelson met her in Naples and became besotted by her. He and his wife separated in 1801, the year Lady Hamilton bore him a daughter, Horatia.

Sir William, reconciled to their affair, died in 1803. After his death and Nelson's two years later, Lady Hamilton was imprisoned for debt and later escaped to France, where she died, impoverished, in 1815.

The collection also includes two porcelain wine coolers and a sword made to commemorate Nelson's victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

Nelson, born in 1758, joined the navy at age 12 and escorted British troops from Canada to fight in the American War of Independence.

By age 20 he was a captain. In 1793, he sailed to the Mediterranean to wage war on the Spanish and the French, losing his right eye in fighting off Corsica.

In 1797, he lost his right arm in an unsuccessful attack on Santa Cruz on the Spanish-held island of Tenerife. There were further victories over the French in Egypt and Denmark, before Trafalgar, where Nelson was mortally wounded by a sniper, but survived long enough to learn of the British success.

"Now I am satisfied. Thank God, I have done my duty," were his last words.

Nelson was given a state funeral and buried at St. Paul's Cathedral. The Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square commemorates him and his victory.

Sotheby's will put the auction collection on display at its New York office on Sept. 16.

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