Previously unknown, the papers which were all handwritten by "the incorruptible one" between January 1792 and his death in July 1794, emerged from the descendants of fellow revolutionary Philippe-Françoise-Joseph Le Bas, in whose family they had been kept for over 200 years.
Numbering 116 pages in all, they were offered as a single lot with a €200,000-300,000 estimate at the May 18 sale.
Such rarities have never been on the market before and these drafts for four speeches, five articles and a letter drew strong calls for the state to step in. Historians, columnists and politicians from left-of-centre parties in particular led the demands for the French government to secure them after their consignment to Sotheby's was made public.
The spontaneous writings that Robespierre had made in a small but legible hand were marked by crossing-outs and corrections. As such, they illustrated his thought processes during this turbulent period, during which he first became the most influential figure in the Jacobin club and then began to dominate the National Convention as well as the notorious Committee of Public Safety – instigating "The Terror" as he did so.
In one of the drafts, Robespierre detailed his opposition to granting any mercy for King Louis XVI, insisting that he must be sentenced to death. He noted that the members of the National Convention who supported clemency for the king stood on the right of the hall, while those who opposed it stood on the left. From this division in the chamber, the political terms of Left and Right that we know today were born.
There were also documents outlining his views on the course of the Revolutionary Wars, his desire to establish 'the cult of the supreme being' as the official religion, and his struggle to reconcile the often incompatible relationship between happiness, virtue and freedom.
Arguably the most historically important document in the lot was a draft for his last speech, which was made to the Convention on 8 Thermidor (July 26, 1794) where he famously defended himself against charges of dictatorship as calls of "Down with the tyrant!" came from the floor.
The next day Robespierre and 12 supporters were arrested at the Hôtel de Ville and executed by the guillotine. This was done without questioning, trial or even evidence being required under the Law of Suspects that he himself had passed just two months earlier.
Phillipe Le Bas was with Robespierre as he was finally seized but, rather than be taken alive, Le Bas shot himself. Robespierre had tried to do the same, but he only succeeeded in shooting off his own jaw.
After Robespierre's death, his reputed mistress Eléonore Duplay hid many of his papers before being arrested herself. Her father was Robespierre's landlord in Paris and Le Bas was married to her younger sister Elisabeth Duplay. This was probably how these documents ended up remaining with Le Bas' family.
With much anticipation in the packed saleroom, the bidding started at €200,000 but finally reached €750,000 (£694,445) when the hammer fell. At this point they were pre-empted by the Archives Nationales, to a round of applause from those present.
Also at the sale was a selection of handwritten correspondence and original documents from Philippe Le Bas himself which, also offered as a single lot, were pre-empted by the Archives Nationales at €65,000 (£60,185).
The buyer's premium was 25/20/12%
By Alex Capon