In 1916 the distinguished London antiquarian booksellers Maggs Bros bought the penis of Napoleon Bonaparte from the descendants of Abbé Ange Paul Vignali, who had given the last rites to Napoleon on St. Helena. Vignali brought the penis along with a collection of more conventional mementos of Napoleon to Corsica, and died in a vendetta in 1828. He passed on the mementos to his sister, who at her death passed them on to her son, Charles-Marie Gianettini. After holding the Vignali collection of Napoleon memorabilia for eight years, Maggs sold it to the legendary American antiquarian bookseller Dr. A.S.W Rosenbach of Philadelphia for £400 (then $2000) in 1924.
Though the authenticity of the other Napoleon memorabilia in the Vignali collection was never in doubt, authenticity of the penis, which resembled something "like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoe-lace or shriveled eel," "rested mainly on a memoir by the valet, Ali (Saint-Denis), published in 1852 in the celebrated Revue des [Deux] Mondes. Ali claimed that he and Vignali had removed certain unnamed portions of Napoleon's corpse during the autopsy" (Charles Hamilton, Auction Madness  54-55).
With his characteristic flair Dr. Rosenbach received considerable publicity for this purchase. According to the May 12, 1924 issue of Time Magazine:
"The collection numbers about 40 pieces, half of which consist of documents. The most interesting are: death mask from the matrix moulded by Dr. Antomarchi, Napoleon's doctor; a letter from Antomarchi to Vignali; the last cup ever used by the ex-French Emperor, a silver goblet inscribed with the Imperial arms; a silver knife, fork and spoon also engraved with the Imperial arms; a shirt, handkerchiefs, pair of white breeches, white pique waistcoats; Church vestments from the Longwood Chapel, some marked with the Imperial cypher; last, the most gruesome relic, a mummified tendon taken from the ex-Emperor's body during the postmortem" (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,718332,00.html, accessed 08-02-2009).
Dr. Rosenbach had the penis "enshrined" in an elaborate blue morocco and velvet box. In 1927 he exhibited it, along with the other Vignali relics, in the Museum of French Art in New York.
Though I had heard of this most unusual purchase in Dr. Rosenbach's career I was not aware that The Rosenbach Company had issued a catalogue describing the collection until a copy of Description of the Vignali Collection of the Relics of Napoleon (1924) was offered early in 2010. This I acquired, and we mounted a scan of the 20 page catalogue in the Traditions section of our website.
In that catalogue the description of item number 9 reads as follows:
"A mummifled tendon taken from Napoleon's body during the post mortem. (The authenticity of this remarkable relic has lately [in 1852!] been confirmed by the publication in the Revue des Deux Mondes of a posthumous memoir by St. Denis, in which he expressly states that he and Vignali took away small pieces of Napoleon's corpse during the autopsy.)"
As historic as the Vignali collection was, it was not readily salable. According to the standard biography, Rosenbach by Edwin Wolf II and John F. Fleming (1960), a work which was inspirational in my early career, the Vignali collection remained in the inventory of The Rosenbach Company for 23 years until it was finally purchased by collector Donald Hyde in 1947.
But wait, the story continues:
According to Charles Hamilton, when Donald Hyde died in 1966 his widow, Mary, also a serious collector, turned the Vignali collection over to Dr. Rosenbach's successor, John Fleming. Fleming in turn sold it to dealer Bruce Gimelson for $35,000. Finding the collection difficult to resell, as had Maggs and Rosenbach, Gimelson consigned it to Christie's in London for sale en bloc at a reserve price equal to his cost, but with no success. When the collection failed to sell London tabloids ran the naughty headline, "Not Tonight, Josephine!"
Eight years later Gimelson consigned the collection in Paris at Drouot Rive Gauche. This time the collection was dispersed, and the penis was purchased by John K. Lattimer, professor emeritus and former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, for the equivalent of $3000. The object fit in well with other historical objects in Lattimer's collection:
"Dr. John Lattimer possessed Abraham Lincoln's bloodstained collar and a treasure trove of items from his own idiosyncratic relationships to some of the most important historical events of the 20th century. He was an attending urologist to Nazi prisoners at the Nuremberg trials and had acquired Herman Goering's suicide vial. He worked on the autopsy of John F. Kennedy and possessed upholstery from the president's limousine in Dallas" ("The Twisted Story of Napoleon's Privates" http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92126411, accessed 05-23-2010).