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When the hit History Channel series “Pawn Stars” asked UNLV history professor Gregory Brown to confirm the authenticity of a “one-of-a-kind” document signed by Napoleon Bonaparte, the French history expert’s curiosity was naturally piqued. Brown has authored two books and numerous articles on Enlightenment-era France and the French Revolution.
On the June 27 episode of the show, Corey Harrison, one of the “Pawn Stars” and co-owner of Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, purchased what appeared to be a hand-signed proclamation Napoleon issued after the famous Battle of Austerlitz. A customer had bought the purported “unique piece of history” online and was looking to unload it for some extra cash.
The asking price: $10,000. Harrison talked him down to a reasonable $2,000. Only after making the purchase did Harrison approach Brown to provide historical perspective.
For background, the Battle of Austerlitz is credited as one of Napoleon’s greatest victories. Fought in the winter of 1805, it pitted Napoleon’s Grand Army against the Russo-Austrian Army. According to Brown, adding to the conflict’s place in history was Napoleon’s revolutionary battle strategy and maneuvering, which essentially allowed his army to split the enemy to gain victory.
Brown was asked to validate the proclamation — a hand-touched piece of history Napoleon issued to soldiers on the battlefield after the French victory.
The thing is, it wasn’t an original manuscript copy. The reason: a handwritten document would’ve shown greater disparity in the ink patterns, among other things. The original is housed in a military archive outside of Paris. The Pawn Stars’ copy, at least according to show, is now in a downtown Las Vegas garbage can.
The moral: if you’re planning to buy a piece of history, check with a historian first.
University Communications asked Brown about his experience.
What was your initial reaction? Did you know it was fake right away?
Yes. The proclamation after the Battle of Austerlitz is a very wellknown historical document, the equivalent of some of the great battlefield speeches and political communications in American history. It is extremely famous and is very widely recognized, but also very likely to be reproduced. It’s not likely that a manuscript of this magnitude would show up at a pawnshop in Las Vegas.
The importance of historical documents, the value that they represent to people, would explain why someone would’ve made a reproduction with the attempt to make it look original. This is much like one could buy an aged replica copy of the Declaration of Independence at a museum gift shop.
Did you ever think your extensive training in French history would be used to aid a pawn shop on national television?
This is interesting with Napoleon. His fame and role in popular culture has led to many films and documentaries in Europe and the U.S. It’s become pretty common to expect there would be scholarly commentary to put it in context.
It’s important to note that over the past several years, the group that produces Pawn Stars has turned to UNLV as a resource for scholarly expertise. They found that UNLV provides the authoritative scholarly and academic knowledge on a wide range of topics needed for a national audience.
How can programs like Pawn Stars and networks like History Channel help people better engage in and understand history?
This is the great genius of the History Channel. They have been able to understand that the issues and questions we want to raise in the discipline of history are not purely academic. These are living issues and they are presented in a way that’s far enough that people want to watch and learn from it, but close enough that they recognize it and can comprehend it.
[These programs] are brilliant in their ability to translate the challenges of social organization, which are at the essence of why we study history.
Any advice for bargain hunters searching the internet for a piece of history on the cheap?
My advice would not be so much finding things to buy, but to consider preserving what we feel is important for future generations to study. The Napoleonic Period included innovations in organizational systems like alphabetical filing and pre-printed forms. In our age we generate more written information than ever before, but it’s not clear if we’re generating it in a way that one can look at in an orderly fashion.
One thing characteristic of France, even dating back to the 19th century, is a public effort at historic preservation. This has led to great economic benefits and a source of national cohesion. In Las Vegas, preserving things of historical value — documents or even buildings – could one day become part of the physical record of our shared past.