By Anne Whitehead *
THE trained eye of the owner of an art gallery and antiques shop in Potts Point, Sydney was drawn to a miniature portrait while browsing the online sales base, eBay.
Small portraits were not usually Leigh Capel’s “thing” but this one stopped him in his tracks. Looking closer he made out the signature “René”, and, given the portrait’s quality, he suspected it could be by René Théodore Berthon, the 19th Century French artist who did portraits of Napoleon.
Capel was looking at the face of the Empress Josephine draped in her coronation jewels.
The director of Belle Epoque Fine Art bought the portrait for $255 and then jumped on the internet using every key word he could think of that might connect a rare Napoleonic artwork to an eBay seller in Australia. It didn’t take long to find out.
The story began on St Helena in 1815 with the exiled emperor and an English merchant William Balcombe appointed Napoleon’s household providore. Napoleon, Balcombe, and family became friends on that remote South Atlantic island. My book about that relationship, Betsy and the Emperor, was published exactly 200 years later.
Capel discovered that a former Balcombe home, The Briars’ historic homestead at Mount Martha, had experienced a major burglary of Napoleonic items in 2014, and Josephine’s miniature was just one of the stolen treasures.
The homestead was the former residence of Alexander Beatson Balcombe, youngest son of William Balcombe and a pioneer Victorian settler.
On St Helena, four-year-old Alexander was a favourite of Napoleon, the same age as his own son. The small boy would sit on the Imperial knee and play with the toggles of his coat.
Napoleon gave many gifts to the Balcombe family, including a guitar to Alexander’s sister Betsy, jewellery and, on parting, strands of his hair to each of the family.
William Balcombe overcame official displeasure at having been Bonaparte’s friend and was granted the plum appointment of first Colonial Treasurer of NSW, arriving in Sydney with his family in 1824. His son Alexander became one of the pioneer settlers of the Port Phillip district. In 1846 he established a farm at Mount Martha, naming it The Briars, after their beloved island home on St Helena.
One of Alexander’s granddaughters, the Melbourne socialite and philanthropist, Dame Mabel Brookes was captivated by her family’s connection with Napoleon. She amassed a collection of items, some purchased, some presented to her, and some family pieces given personally by Napoleon.
After her death in 1975, her collection was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Trust.
The three sons of the last owner of The Briars, Alexander’s great-granddaughter Elizabeth a’Beckett, in 1973 generously donated the homestead and 20 acres to the Shire of Mornington (now part of Mornington Peninsula Shire) and the National Trust.
It became the show place for a number of items from Dame Mabel’s collection, with the remainder in storage at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.
The Briars homestead – which celebrated a pioneering Victorian family as well as the Napoleonic collection – attracted many visitors and was a great success without incident for 30 years.
On the night of 10 April 2014, burglars entered the homestead through a louvred bathroom window and unscrewed the adjoining door. Holding the door in front of them to avoid the motion sensor of the burglar alarm, they broke into three display cabinets.
Eleven Napoleonic items were stolen: miniatures of Napoleon and Josephine, gold jewellery, a pearl and emerald ring, Napoleon’s strands of hair, his snuff box, a silver inkwell and more. The 11th item, a portrait of Napoleon, was so recent an acquisition that it had not been catalogued. The third cabinet break-in set off the sensor alarm and the thieves dropped Betsy’s guitar on the floor as they fled.
News of the 2014 burglary made headlines around the world. Images of the stolen items – estimated to be worth about $150,000 – were sent to antiquarians and international auction houses, but it was assumed they had gone to a private collector overseas and were unlikely to be heard of again. That is, until “art sleuth” Leigh Capel’s astonishing find of Empress Josephine’s miniature on eBay.
Given its value, he returned it in person to Narelle Russo, collections curator at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery where the remaining Napoleonic items are now securely held.
The other 10 items are still out there for someone to return. Art sleuths take note.
*Anne Whitehead, author of Betsy and the Emperor: the true story of Napoleon, a pretty girl, a Regency rake and an Australian colonial misadventure, Allen & Unwin, 2015.