Dreyfus letter fetches nearly $500,000 at Paris auction

PARIS (JTA) – A letter handwritten by Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish soldier who was wrongly convicted of  treason in 1894, was sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars.

The sale went through even after a Dreyfus heir urged the seller to give the letter to a museum instead.

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The letter, which Dreyfus sent from prison to government officials in an attempt to clear his name, was sold Wednesday for $492,000 at an auction organized by Sotheby’s Paris branch. It was not expected to bring in more than $190,000, according to the French news agency AFP, which did not name the buyers.

A captain in the French army, Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906 of his conviction on charges of  spying for Germany after a lengthy court battle rife with anti-Semitic overtones, which historians describe as a determinant of modern Zionism and a major influence on Theodor Herzl – an Austrian journalist who covered the trial and later founded the World Zionist Congress.

The case was widely denounced as a miscarriage of justice, most notably in “J’accuse,” an open letter by Émile Zola published on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore in 1898.

Due to Sotheby’s privacy policy, French media did not report the names of the seller or the buyer of the letter, but according to reports the buyer participated in the auction over the phone, outbidding several interested parties.

AFP reported that Dreyfus’ grandson, Charles Dreyfus, wrote this week an open letter urging the seller not to sell but give the letter to a museum instead.

The letter was “probably given by Pierre Dreyfus, the son of Alfred, to the national French library for safekeeping on May 1940 so that they may protect it from the German occupation,” Sotheby’s said. “The letter was then returned to the Dreyfus family in 1951 and bought” by the person who sold it at Sotheby’s in 1996, AFP reported.