A Slight Obsession with a Short Man's Hero

Napoleon the Great: Selections From the David Markham Collection

"We don't give people that kind of devotion," Markham says, and indeed, the mind boggles at the thought of American military heroes who went on to become political leaders, like Grant and Eisenhower, being depicted this way.

Markham's Napoleonic collection was a natural outgrowth of his collection of American political memorabilia, which includes such things as silk ribbons, ferrotype campaign portraits and brass shell buttons with pictures of candidates. "I love to collect things, no doubt about it," Markham says. He once amassed a group of ancient English coins and is in the process of selling a large John F. Kennedy collection.

"I'm a firm believer that this stuff is not to be stuck into a closet," he says. "I try to have it on display as often as I can." His political memorabilia, for instance, is on display at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg. Most of Markham's political collection is from 1789 to 1892, when modern celluloid buttons replaced the earlier ribbons and ferrotypes. He expanded his horizons to include Napoleon when he realized that objects related to the great man were not only available in this country, but affordable. (One of the nicest prints in the collection, in fact, was given to Markham because its owners didn't want it.) "It never occurred to me that there was an opportunity to collect things here," he says simply.

Once he got started collecting, there was no stopping him. And there seems an almost unbounded amount of material. There are, for instance, 220,000 books about Napoleon. And not only is there memorabilia from Napoleon's own lifetime, there are objects made following his death, when the French people began to miss their former ruler.

The Napoleon on horseback, for example, the largest item in Markham's collection, was cast in bronze in the 1890s, when Napoleon's reign had long assumed its place as the high point in French history and had become the focus for two of the greatest novels ever written, Les Miserables and War and Peace. Markham managed to snap up the horseback figure when he went to an auction preview and happened to be there when the organizers decided to start the auction a day early. Luck and strategy help in collecting, just like in conquering worlds, he has realized.

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