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    Heroic Italian cyclist risked everything to save countless Jews during the Holocaust

    1938 Tour de France "Vase de Sèvres" Winner's Trophy Presented to Gino Bartali. There is something inside the elite endurance athlete, an uncommon force of will to persevere through adversity that would break most men. Any race is a competition with others, but the Tour de France is primarily a battle against oneself, against the steadily rising volume of the body's cries to stop. Great cyclists aren't born--they're made--and great suffering is the only path to success.

    So it is only natural to draw some sort of parallel between the athletic and humanitarian fortitude of Gino Bartali, the brave Italian cyclist who was awarded this remarkable trophy for his first of two Tour de France victories. For decades, Bartali's primary legacy was his return to Tour de France glory a full decade after his first win, but in recent years a far more compelling story has come to light, one which reveals a different but even more exceptional capacity for human resolve.

    It was shorty after Bartali claimed victory in the 1938 Tour de France that relations between the host nation and Bartali's homeland deteriorated, the French uneasy with Mussolini's support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War and his growing relationship with Adolf Hitler. Bartali was denied the opportunity to defend his title in the 1939 Tour, and the widening scope of the war soon made all European competition impossible. Soon Bartali was conscripted into service as a military bicycle messenger for the Italian army. By the autumn of 1943, Italy had fallen under control of the German army, and its Jewish population became subject to the genocidal terror of the Holocaust.

    In this darkest chapter of twentieth century history, Bartali would emerge as one of its greatest athletic heroes, sheltering a local Jewish family in an apartment purchased with his cycling winnings, and smuggling counterfeit identity documents in the frame of his bicycle as he traveled the Italian countryside to assist in the escape of countless others. In 1943, he led Jewish refugees toward the Swiss Alps himself, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment, telling patrols the contraption was part of his training. Bartali was fully aware that the penalty for his actions would range from imprisonment to death, and the same for his wife and young son, but he carried this weight of fear and responsibility with the same determination he used to conquer the French Alps, telling his boy, with characteristic stoicism, "One does these things, and then that's that."

    Decades after his brave service to humanity, Bartali rejected public recognition, going so far as to threaten a lawsuit against an Italian television channel that was planning a documentary celebrating his wartime activities.

    "I don't want to appear to be a hero," he explained. "Heroes are those who died, who were injured, who spent many months in prison."

    Heritage Auctions is honored and humbled to present the most significant artifact from Bartali's athletic achievements ever unearthed--the glorious Vase de Sèvres trophy presented to Bartali for claiming victory in the 1938 Tour de France.

    Sèvres is widely considered the finest porcelain maker on Earth, a factory founded in 1738 with the support of King Louis XV, and supplier of many of the pieces that decorated the palace at Versailles. The Vase de Sèvres remains to this day a traditional victor's prize for the Tour de France, though this is the first of which we are aware that has been made available at public auction.

    The vase stands eighteen inches (18") tall and eight and a half inches (8.5") wide at the mouth, the stunning design recounting the various legs of the 1938 Tour, assuring this most desirable vintage. Along with the Sèvres maker's mark on the base, we find text reporting, "E. D'ap. Beaumont 37-38," the digits relating to the vintage of creation and presentation respectively. Remarkably, the fragile relic survives without a single chip or crack to report, unchanged in any way from its appearance when it was presented to a twenty-four year old Bartali. Simply as an elite example of a Sèvres vase, the piece carries enormous value and importance, and we expect participation from bidders loyal to the Decorative Arts division of Heritage.

    A decade later, Bartali would once again cross the finish line in Paris first to claim the 1948 Tour de France and the still-standing record for the longest gap between Tour victories. Remarkably, the news of Bartali's second victory hit Italy just as revolts by the Italian Communist Party were hitting a crescendo following the attempted assassination of their leader Palmiro Togliatti. The former prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, was quoted, "To say that civil war was averted by a Tour de France victory is surely excessive. But it is undeniable that on that 14th of July of 1948, day of the attack on Togliatti, Bartali contributed to ease the tensions."

    Once again, Gino Bartali had failed in his humble attempt to avoid the name "hero."

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    February, 2015
    21st-22nd Saturday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 5
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
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    19.5% of the successful bid (minimum $14) per lot.

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