‘Working’ guillotine goes up for auction in France

A 19th century French guillotine that was used to chop off a few heads over the years will go under the hammer in France on Thursday. And yes, it still works.

A working French guillotine is expected to fetch up to €60,000 when it goes under the hammer on Thursday in the western French city of Nantes. 

The wood, iron, steel and brass relic, synonymous with the French Revolution, was used to execute people in the second half of the 19th century.

However the device's blade bears an inscriptions that indicates it could have been used in during France’s bloody revolution at the end of the 18th century, Europe 1 radio reported

“It is rare for this type of object to go to auction, so it is rather difficult to set a price, but we have taken into account its rarity,” auctioneer François-Xavier Duflos told Europe 1. “It would be nice if it remained in a historic setting, either on display in a chateau or in a public collection.”

The guillotine has been in private hands for over a century and is currently owned by an unnamed man who had it passed down to him from his grandfather. The grandfather apparently bought in Lyon in the early 20th century.

The blade of the guillotine bears the inscription ‘Armees de la Republique,” a reference to the Revolutionary Army that was created to defend France from its neighbors in the aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution.

However, there are some discrepancies between the age of the guillotine’s parts and the age indicated by the inscription in the blade.

“It was used by the army, it was assembled and disassembled,” Duflos told Europe 1. “It has certainly known several battlefields.”

The auctioneers can’t be sure of the exact age of the item in its current state, however there are relatively certain it was in use in the second half of 19th century.

It is not the first time a guillotine has been put up for auction in France. According to France 3 a guillotine with the same “Armees de la Republique” inscription was sold at auction for €223,056 to the Hotel Drouot in Paris, in 2011.

The auction house has said the item cannot be exported once sold, a question that has come up with other historic French objects on the auction block. 

The auction of a nightshirt worn by Napoleon Bonaparte was recently cancelled over concerns the relic would end up outside France.

Five things to know about the guillotine

  • The guillotine was named after reformer Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who had argued for a method of painless capital punishment, that would be used for all the classes. It was meant as an interim step before the banning of the death penalty.
  • The first prototype guillotine was built by German engineer Tobias Schmidt, who suggested using a diagonal blade instead of a round one.
  • The falling blade has a rate of speed of about 21 feet/second and the actual beheading takes 2/100 of a second.
  • The first guillotining took place in 1792, when highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletie was executed in Paris. French King Louis XVI had his own head chopped off on January 21, 1793. Thousands of people were publicly guillotined during the French Revolution.
  • The device remained France’s standard method of execution until the death penalty was abolished in 1981. The last person to be executed using a guillotine was murderer Hamida Djandoubi on September 10, 1977.

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