A rich record of two empires at their peak

The London antiquarian map and book dealer Daniel Crouch has a remarkable £500,000 centrepiece for his Maastricht stand, where the European Fine Art Fair runs until March 20. The 34-volume first edition of the Description de l’Égypte, (1809 to 1828), with 844 large engravings, many in colour, has been described as one of the greatest achievements of French publishing, and this example is in perfect condition, contained in its custom-built bookcase and accompanied by archival material relating to its first owner. The publication and archive tell us much about the politics of Restoration France, a period with notable resonances today.

The Egyptian project originated with the scientists and archaeologists who accompanied Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. After the French defeat, they had to surrender many antiquities, including the Rosetta Stone, but were allowed to keep their notes and sketchbooks, and in 1803 the imperial government set a commission to work on the first scientific description of ancient and modern Egypt. The publication helped to launch the European fascination with the Near and Middle East.

Description was intended to glorify the Empire, but after 1814 it was readily adopted by the restored Bourbons, Louis XVIII and Charles X. Several hundred copies were eventually produced, at a cost of Fr5 million — a financial disaster but a propaganda success as they were given to those that the king particularly wished to favour. “Given” is not quite the correct term, though, as the honoured recipients had to pay for lavish uniform bindings by Jean- Joseph Tessier, official binder to successive regimes, at a cost of Fr610, and for a mahogany bookcase with Egyptian-style bronze embellishments based on a model supplied by the commission.

This copy was presented to Guy de Lavau, prefect of the Paris police from 1821 to 1828, and is offered with the original instructions together with manuscripts of his various appointments and honours. De Lavau (1787-1874) was a favourite of the ultraroyalists “on account of his piety” according to Victor Hugo.

France seethed with conspiring Bonapartists, republicans and royalists of several hues, and de Lavau’s police informants spied on all levels of society, as disclosed in The Black Book or Alphabetic Tabulation of the Political Police under the Deplorable Ministry, published anonymously by one of the officers he had dismissed.

However, he was ineffective compared with Fouché, Napoleon’s much feared spymaster, and in 1829 he was himself sacked. After the 1830 revolution, he lived out his long life in “profound obscurity” at his wife’s chatêau near Vendôme.