Makings of History / Going, Going, Gone

Public auctions and eBay sell historic documents to the highest bidder, including 772 items connected with Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

The palace of Fontainebleau near Paris served France's monarchy for centuries, but in the wake of the French Revolution lost much of its glory. Napoleon Bonaparte had restored the glory of the palace, turning it into one of the symbols of his empire. After he was deposed he fled there, before later departing for his first period of exile, on the Isle of Elba, in 1814.

Last week, at Fontainebleau, a letter Napoleon wrote from Moscow on October 20, 1812, was sold in a public auction. It is composed of a numerical code - except for the signature: Nap. Its "punch line" is: "449, 514, 451, 1365," which means "I will blow up the Kremlin on the 22nd at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Although large portions of the czarist compound did indeed go up in flames, Napoleon's career was also quickly plummeting to disaster. In his letter - which is addressed to his foreign minister, Hugues-Bernard Maret, then in Vilna - the French emperor notes that his cavalry is in tatters and many of the horses have perished. Napoleon launched his campaign to capture Moscow in June 1812, heading an army of 700,000. However, Moscow proved to be not worth capturing: Many of its residents had fled, its food storehouses were empty, flames engulfed all its neighborhoods.

The attempt to destroy the Kremlin can be seen as a last, futile gesture of rage and revenge, even as Napoleon was rapidly heading toward final defeat. In December he was driven back from Russia with only 20,000 troops; the rest of his army had perished in battle or from starvation, disease or the bitter cold of the Russian winter. Others were wandering through the snow-covered steppes of Russia, trying to subsist by begging.

The auction at Fontainebleau was timed perfectly, taking place close to the very anniversary of the day that the coded letter was written, 200 years ago. Although its value was estimated at 15,000 euros (close to $20,000 ), it was sold, surprisingly, for much more: 187,500 euros. The purchaser is the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris.

The sale was promoted widely and received much media coverage, but one question remained: How did a top-secret letter from a head of state to his foreign minister find its way into private hands, only to be sold at public auction? Generally speaking, auction houses do everything they can to protect themselves from possible disputes over ownership claims. Thus, it is likely that the letter did not even belong to France's national archives.

However, a perusal of the website of eBay, the world's largest online marketplace, reveals that one can easily purchase Israeli documents that have been stolen, apparently, from state archives. For example, eBay sometimes sells items bearing the handwriting of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism. Today, his name appears chiefly on stamps, medals and photos whose prices average $10 on eBay.

Former Prime Minister Golda Meir's name is associated with 483 items available on the site, but none bears her handwriting. Former Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan is more popular: eBay offers 2,879 items connected with him, including a key chain with his picture; the asking price is $20. An inscription in Hebrew that Dayan wrote in a book has a suggested price of $150, while an English-language book with his autograph is being offered for $750. These are among the more modest Dayan items on sale at eBay. The suggested price for a letter with one line typed in English and respectfully thanking the addressee for writing to Dayan is $3,499.

Thus, eBay is not going overboard in asking $4,999 for a letter Dayan wrote as defense minister in December 1973 to the parents of a first lieutenant who had fallen in the Yom Kippur War. Although the very sale of this letter is somewhat embarrassing, there is no reason to assume that it is illegal. The same can be said about some of the letters Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote to various citizens.

Among the 772 items connected with Ben-Gurion and available on the website is a letter whose price is close to what was initially asked for Napoleon's coded letter: $15,000. Ben-Gurion wrote it in December 1970 to a woman named Rina Yashar, who lived at the time at 105 Arlosoroff St., Holon. She had requested that the prime minister write her grandson, confirming that the grandson's father had taught Ben-Gurion how to use a plow. Ben-Gurion replied politely in barely legible handwriting that he'd been friends with the father but that, regretfully, he could not accede to her request because he did not remember the father teaching him how to plow a field. A copy of the letter can be found in the Ben-Gurion Archive in Sde Boker. Why would anyone want to pay $15,000 for it? It's likely that no one will.

A letter of condolence in Yiddish that Ben-Gurion wrote in 1942 to the widow of a leading figure in the U.S. Jewish community has been available at auction for the past two years, without any takers. The owners are asking $5,000. A letter he sent to a childhood friend, MK Shlomo Lavi, in January 1954, is being offered for $10,000. On the right-hand side of the letter are two perforations attesting to the fact that it had once been filed in a private or perhaps state archive.

This is not the only instance of a document that was originally filed in some archive. Among the Ben-Gurion letters being offered for sale by eBay are at least five that apparently could not have been obtained legally. In fact, it is even possible to identify their original source. These are letters sent to Shimon Peres, the current Israeli president; the late Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett; a director general of the Foreign Ministry; and two members of Knesset. They are being offered by a seller in Las Vegas, and eBay is asking over $50,000 for all five.