c. 1827 French guitar


Mirecourt, France

Yet a third guitar from the estate of Giulia King-Church (née Pelzer) finds a home in the Austin-Marie Collection. The c. 1871 Mareschal Mathieu guitar [1] was owned by Giulia’s celebrated sister, Madame Sidney Pratten, while the c. 1831 guitar attributed to Joseph Gerard [2] belonged to Giulia’s father, Ferdinand Pelzer. Similarly, the c. 1827 anonymous French guitar was also Ferdinand’s, but this instrument enjoys a distinctly more interesting history.

Ferdinand Pelzer was born in 1801 in Trier (Treves) located on the Moselle River, then part of France. In 1815, the city became part of the Kingdom of Prussia following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  His father, Jacob Pelzer, was a professor of mathematics at Treves College, where Ferdinand studied both mathematics and music. Ferdinand’s music education included voice and piano, but he was later drawn to the guitar.

Before settling in London in or around 1829, Pelzer studied and taught guitar. One of his most celebrated and colorful students was Capitaine Barthélemy Bacheville, a decorated officer of La Grande Armée, who followed Napoleon to Elba, fought at Waterloo, and spent three years fleeing French authorities following Napoleon’s abdication.


Date c. 1827
Location Mirecourt, France
Length of Guitar 898mm
String Length 600mm
Upper Bout Width 260mm
Waist Width 172mm
Lower Bout Width 328mm
Side Depth at Waist 83mm
Soundboard: Spruce | Back: satin wood| Sides: satin wood  | Details: Neck has been ebonized and head is fitted with Demet tuners

In 1816, Bacheville was suspected of conspiring against the government and was sentenced to death by guillotine in absentia. He and his younger brother Antoine fled across Germany into Poland before settling in Moldava. Two years later, he separated from Antoine and traveled to Constantinople, hoping to secure safe passage to America. Unable to find a boat, Bacheville then journeyed to Smyrna and consulted for Ali Pasha, a ruthless Ottoman governor. He later embarked for Dubrovnik, Trieste, and then Rome, where he met with Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte. In 1819, he traveled to Florence and then Livorno where he learned there was a chance his sentence might be overturned.  Later that year, he returned to Lyon and spent a short time in prison before the courts ordered him set free.

Bacheville eventually settled in Paris and in 1822 wrote a book about his years on the lam, Voyage Des Freres Bachville en Europe et en Asie [3]. He later returned to military service in 1830 and died in 1833 as commander of the citadel at Montpellier.

It would likely have been during the latter half of the 1820s when Bacheville studied guitar with Ferdinand Pelzer and gifted the anonymous French guitar to him as an homage to his teacher. From the Sotheby’s auction of Giulia King-Church’s musical instruments and ephemera following her death in 1938 (she was 99 years old) there is a note written in her hand that states:

Napoleon’s General No 10 Capitaine Bacheville gave my father (Ferdinand Pelzer) this guitar, as a relic, he being a pupil of my father and had a great love for him, as he played the guitar so splendidly – it hung over my father’s bed for many years.

Giulia Pelzer

It is interesting to note that the 1938 Sotheby’s auction guide states the guitar was owned by Napoleon, who gave it to Bacheville, who in turn, gifted the instrument to Pelzer:

(Auction item) 211: The Guitar, formerly the property of Napoleon, was given by Bacheville, one of Napoleon’s Generals, to Ferdinand Pelzer who taught him the guitar.

We know now that it was impossible for the anonymous French guitar to have been “formerly the property of Napoleon.” Following his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled on the small island of Saint Helena situated over a thousand miles off the coast of East Africa. He died there six years later in May of 1821 under heavy British guard. Furthermore, the guitar’s design would likely have it built – at the earliest – in the mid-1820s. Sotheby’s mistaken account of the guitar’s history could have been due to a misunderstanding, or perhaps the story was embellished to appeal to a wider audience.

This is not the first time a guitar has been falsely attributed to Napoleon. Australian historian Andrew Messner performed a thorough investigation of a guitar supposedly made by a Parisian maker named Flanbau (more likely the Mirecourt maker Flambeau) given by Napoleon to a young girl during his exile on St. Helena. Messner’s paper, The Myth of the Napoleon Guitar, successfully refutes this story. Furthermore, Messner goes on to dispute any notion that Napoleon ever played the guitar (an opinion shared by French historian, Erik Pierre Hofmann): https://andrewmessner.net/2021/11/14/the-myth-of-the-napoleon-guitar/

Even Giulia’s note asserting that Bacheville studied with her father and gifted him a guitar creates chronological challenges. British guitar scholar Sarah Clarke has established that Ferdinand Pelzer had immigrated to England by 1829. Unfortunately, Pelzer’s pre-London years are not as well known. When considering the anonymous French guitar was made in and around 1827 and Bacheville returned to military service in 1830, then any interaction between Pelzer and Bacheville which included handing over a guitar, would have likely occurred sometime between 1827 to 1829. There is always a less likely possibility that Bacheville shipped the guitar to Pelzer in London before he died in 1833. We can only speculate.

A narrow window of time is not necessarily problematic but dating the guitar in or around 1827 is convenient if not critical. The anonymous French guitar carries no label or branding marks to establish a maker’s date. However, a side-by-side comparison with a labeled 1827 guitar (shown above) by the Parisian builder Pierre René Lacote reveals remarkable similarities in shape and design. The headstock and tuners of the anonymous French guitar are also not without controversy. Some would argue that the Demet tuners would place the maker’s date in the 1830s. Others would argue that the tuners – and even the headstock – could have been added later as removing a peg headstock and refitting with mechanical tuners was a common British practice. Furthermore, the Demet tuners are not particularly well fitted further suggesting they may have been added later.

Another posited theory suggests that somehow Giulia Pelzer’s note may have been associated with an earlier-built guitar in her estate and this “earlier guitar” may have been owned by Napoleon, but this idea has been debunked after reviewing the 1938 Sotheby’s auction catalogue. All of the guitars in Giulia’s estate postdate Napoleon’s year of death.

Regardless, it can be argued that Giulia’s note is too specific and personal to be contrived. The burden of disproof can be as much the responsibility of historians as that of proof when the historical record is limited and the evidence is weighed.

The c. 1827 anonymous French guitar may have been built in the town of Mirecourt in northeastern France. The back and sides are made of satin wood, and the soundboard of fine-grained spruce. Multi-string banding is embedded around the edges and a like design is used around the sound hole. The fretboard is made of ebony and the neck has been ebonized. The brass tuners by Demet are equipped with carved ivory buttons. The guitar came in its original British red, felt-lined case.


[1] see: category FRANCE on this website

[2] see: category ENGLAND

[3] Travels of the Bacheville Brothers in Europe and Asia