Friendship leads to priceless acquisition for the Noel Collection
Historian J. David Markham’s gift of books to an aspiring scholar sparked a friendship that has helped the Noel Collection at LSU Shreveport become one of the foremost archives of Napoleonic-era materials in the nation.
Noel Collection curator Dr. Alex Mikaberidze was that aspiring scholar. At the time, he was a member of the diplomatic corps in the Republic of Georgia but dreamed of a career as a historian. He and David connected, corresponded and eventually met.
“I actually filled up three boxes of books and sent them to him,” David recalls. “He couldn’t believe three boxes of Napoleonic history books showed up to his home. I was doing a conference in Israel in 1998. He actually came. He got to meet a whole lot of other Napoleonic historians. We decided we would do a Napoleonic history conference in Tblisi.”
Twenty years later, David was weighing what to do with the treasure trove of Napoleonic-era books and prints he had amassed. He and Alex struck a deal for the Noel Collection to acquire more than 1,000 books and about 600 period prints.
“Alex said he would like to see my collection stay together. It’s a really significant motherlode of research material,” David says. “Everybody wants to get to the end of their life knowing that what they’ve accomplished is going to be remembered.”
The materials focus on the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, a period that covers 1750 to 1850. The books include numerous memoirs by the social, political and military influencers of Napoleon’s time, while the prints are rich in symbolism that promoted the mythos surrounding Napoleon.
“With this acquisition, we will have the largest collection in this field in Louisiana and one of the largest in the country,” Alex says. “The books allowed us to fill out the gaps we have in the collection. The memoir literature is also more immediate and more intimate – ‘I was there, this is what I saw’ – than histories with facts and dates.”
Noel Collection employees are digitizing the prints to make them available online to scholars around the world.
“The Noel Collection prides itself that it doesn’t charge for this service,” Alex says. “We don’t want these to be dusty and unused.”
A series of setbacks and delays frustrated Alex and David as they tried to ship the collection from David’s home in Toronto, Canada to Shreveport.
“We started discussing the acquisition in 2019 – then Covid hit,” Alex recalls. “It took almost a year to get to Canada so I could examine the collection.”
He and David agreed on which books and prints the Noel Collection would acquire. Then David started looking for a company to ship the priceless items. He found a company that would box them up and put them in a truck. But because of some shipping issues they sat in a warehouse for months.
“They then drove from Toronto to the border, and then customs wanted every detail about every item,” David says. “Again, they sat in a warehouse for months awaiting final customs clearance. When they finally cleared, a quirk in shipping regulations meant that it had to be an American trucker that took them.”
That was finally arranged and the books started moving south. Then the truck broke down in Ohio in July, a month that set summer temperature records around that state. Temperature and humidity extremes can damage delicate books and prints beyond repair.
“I told them, ‘You better run the air conditioning day and night,’” Alex recalls. “At one point, I was like, ‘I’m going to take my own van up there.’”
He and David were equally relieved when the books and prints finally made it to LSUS!
“Having the books there, knowing other researchers will use them and the books will be protected, that pleases me,” David says. “We all want to think that we’ve had some meaningful influence on individual lives, or on collective knowledge and understanding of what is important in our fields of study.”
David first learned about Napoleon from his dad’s stories about larger-than-life history makers. He embraced his passion for Napoleon while pursuing a master’s degree in education.
“I took a graduate class in the French revolution and Napoleon. The professor spent more time on the revolution than Napoleon, but that class really piqued my interest. I had to do a term paper for the class. I did one on Napoleon and the French Revolution, and some of the people he came into contact with. The professor said, ‘You should publish this.’”
David submitted the paper, with a few tweaks, to “Military History Illustrated” magazine. The editors published it, and so began David’s dive into all things Napoleon. He’s written or contributed to some 15 books, including “Napoleon for Dummies,” appeared at numerous international history conferences and helped create The Napoleon 101 Podcast, which ran more than 60 episodes over four years. He has also been featured as a historian on a number of educational TV shows on the History, Learning, Discovery and Smithsonian channels. He has also put together a major Napoleonic collection that includes snuffboxes, engravings, weapons, miniature paintings, furniture and clocks, among other things.
A U.S. Army veteran, he earned a Bronze Star while serving in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. He returned to civilian life and held a variety of federal and state government jobs, as well as teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Fond du Lac for two years. He switched to teaching high school in the mid-1980s. As his interest in Napoleon grew, he found himself reaching not just high school students but thousands of people around the world and developing long-lasting friendships.
“My adult life, starting from my 30s anyway, has been defined by my teaching career and by Napoleon,” he says. He riffs on a classic Saturday Night Live character, baseball player Chico Escuela: “Napoleon been very, very good to me.”