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Ballot sheets from 1903 conclave to be sold at auction

The ballot sheet used to count votes at the 1903 conclave

A ballot paper and a sheet used to count votes at the 1903 conclave are to be auctioned in London on Thursday.

The conclave was notorious because Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria vetoed the front-runner, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, apparently because of his liberal views. Cardinal Rampolla had been secretary of state under the previous pope, Leo XIII.

The veto was exercised on the emperor’s behalf by Polish Cardinal Jan Puzyna de Kosielsko of Krakow, a subject of Austria-Hungary, because the Austrian cardinal refused to exercise the Jus exclusivae or right of veto. Cardinal Puzyna’s use of the veto was reportedly met with disgust by many of the 62 cardinals at the conclave.

The Jus exclusivae by three Catholic heads of state – the kings of Spain and France and the Holy Roman Emperor (later the Austrian emperor) – was used 12 times between 1644, when it was instituted, and 1903. When Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, Patriarch of Venice, was eventually elected Pope Pius X at the conclave, he abolished the use of the veto, declaring that anyone attempting to interfere in the election of a new pope would be excommunicated. He decreed that at the start of future conclaves the cardinals must take an oath that they were not aiding any civil power in an attempt to influence the election.

The printed form being sold at auction this week would have been used to tot up votes for all the cardinals. Annotations in ink show that Cardinal Rampolla was the clear favourite and that Cardinal Sarto was way behind. The form, which is 24 by 21.5 inches, also gives the hand-written names of the nine cardinals acting as infirmarii, who collect ballots from sick and infirm cardinals, scrutatores, the official counters, and recognitores, who verify the count.

The auction lot also includes an actual ballot paper, 7.5 by 4.9 inches, signed by Cardinal Domenico Svampa, Archbishop of Bologna. On the front is his vote for Cardinal Sarto; on the back, presumably to make the point that he was not swayed by the emperor’s veto, he has written: “This is the vote I’ve always given in the seven ballots of August 1-2-3-4, 1903.”

The vendor speculated: “Svampa could have kept the ballot paper writing a statement on it futura memoria as evidence that his vote for Sarto was not a second choice in obedience to the imperial veto but was a decision he had made himself from the very beginning of the conclave. A good political move, maybe, since Sarto became pope.”

It is not known how the two documents came to survive; they should have been burned with all the other ballot papers to produce the traditional black or white smoke. According to the auctioneers, they come from the family of a noted Italian journalist with “numerous relations and contacts within the high ranks of the Roman Church”.

The documents, lot 128 in the auction by Fraser’s Autographs in Bloomsbury House, London, have a starting bid of £500.