Next week in New York, the auctioneer’s gavel will come down on a pair of ornate 19th-century pistols that tell the story of three generations of revolutionaries from three continents who shaped the Americas.
The handguns — embossed with symbols from Greek and Roman mythology — belonged to Latin American independence hero Simón Bolívar. When he died in 1830 at the age of 47, he had liberated six nations from Spanish rule.
But it’s who gave him the gifts that’s fueling interest.
The weapons were thought to be a present to Bolívar from the Marquis de Lafayette, the aristocrat-turned-revolutionary who fought in the French and U.S. wars of independence.
As the story goes, in 1825, the family of the late George Washington was so impressed with Bolívar (they referred to him as the “Washington of the South”) that they sent him a portrait of the first American president, a medal and a lock of his hair. It was as part of that revolutionary care package that Lafayette is believed to have sent Bolívar the pistols, crafted by Nicolas-Noël Boutet, Napoleon’s own gunsmith.
Washington, Lafayette and Bolívar were of three different generations, but they espoused the same values, and the younger Bolívar openly admired the men.
“Being a child of the Enlightenment, he grew up on the stories of Washington and Lafayette, and he wanted to bring those ideals to South America, that was his burning desire,” said Becky MacGuire, the director of exceptional sales at Christie’s in New York, where the weapons will be auctioned April 13. “The wonderful gesture that Lafayette makes by giving him these pistols, it’s as if he’s passing the torch to this younger man.”
When Bolívar got wind of the gifts coming from his French hero and Washington’s estate, he dictated a note in March, 1826, to Lafayette.
“What mortal could ever be worthy of the honors that [Your Excellency] and Mount Vernon see fit to lavish on me,” he wrote from Lima, Peru.
Unfortunately for antiquarians, that’s as close as Bolívar ever got to acknowledging the pistols in the written record.
But there’s no doubt that Lafayette and Bolívar were close. Although they never met, they wrote each other warm letters, said Marie Arana, author of the 2014 biography Bolívar, and chair of the Library of Congress’ Cultures of the Countries of the South.
In one letter, Bolívar hails Lafayette as a “citizen hero, an athlete of liberty, who with one hand has served the Americas and with the other the Old World.”
And it was Lafayette and Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay (also a Bolívar booster) who likely kept the Washington family abreast of the young Latino’s exploits.
“Washington was of a completely different generation. He was drinking with his soldiers in Manhattan, tying up the revolution, the year that Bolívar was born in 1783,” Arana said. “But Washington’s family understood from everything they heard from Clay and Lafayette that this was a remarkable individual.”
How the pistols drifted through the centuries to end up in a Manhattan auction house has as much to do with friendship as history. In 1830, just months before his death in the coastal city of Santa Marta, Bolívar donated his Bogotá home to longtime friend José Ignacio París.
The hacienda, now known as Quinta de Bolívar, had been given to El Libertador in thanks by the newly formed Republic of Colombia. It was on or before that real-estate deal that the pistols also went to París, although, once again, there’s no record of the exchange.
In 1851, however, the weapons reappear when París’ son, Enrique, sold them to Enrique Grice, a wealthy Anglo Colombian. At the time of the transaction, the younger París also provided a document and two affidavits stating that the pistols “were presented by General Lafayette to his Excellency the Liberator of Colombia in 1825.”
The document goes on to say that Grice is receiving them “in the same condition as that in which they were handed on by Simón Bolívar.”
From Grice, they entered the renowned gun collection of William Goodwin Renwick before being sold again in 1973 to anonymous U.S. and Latin American collectors.
Despite being a regional icon, particularly in the six countries that he freed — Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador — few of Bolívar’s personal effects remain.
Of the nine pistols in the collection of the Quinta de Bolívar museum in Bogotá, only one has been confirmed to belong to Bolívar.
In 2004, Christie’s sold a pair of pistols that Bolívar had presented as a gift to one of his friends, Ricardo Illingworth. That pair sold for $1.69 million, and now they’re owned by the government of Venezuela. In 1988, a group of fourteen smaller Bolívar items were sold by Christie’s to Venezuela’s Central Bank.
Representatives of the Central Bank and Venezuela’s network of Bolívar museums did not respond to repeated interview requests. Christie’s said all potential bidders would remain anonymous, but they expected interest from Latin American clients.
One of Bolívar’s most famous relics — his sword — has its own, more modern, story to tell.
On Jan. 17, 1974, the Colombian urban guerrilla group M-19 broke into the Quinta de Bolívar museum and spirited it away.
The note they left behind in its place read: “Bolívar isn’t dead. His sword has broken through the cobwebs of the museum to engage in the battles of today. It’s in our hands, and now it’s pointed at those who exploit the people.” The sword wouldn’t be returned until 1991.
But the pistols have a bitter epilogue. Arana said that in September 1830, when Bolívar was “already badgered, sick and dying,” he received a letter from Lafayette.
Along with praising Bolívar’s courage, Lafayette chastised him for declaring himself president for life. He also questioned Bolívar’s decision to exile Francisco de Paula Santander, his one-time ally who was accused of plotting to kill El Libertador.
“It was sort of a damning blow to Bolívar,” Arana explained. “Bolívar said shortly after that that he gave up … ‘everybody is against me, even my admirers are against me.’”
Bolívar died three months later.
On Wednesday, Bolívar’s present-day admirers can bid on his pistols. The estimated cost of putting your finger on the historical trigger? $1.5 million to $2.5 million.