This French snuffbox depicts Napoléon Bonaparte, his second wife, Marie-Louise, and their son, Napoléon II. It is dated 1815 and might have been made just prior to Napoléon’s arrival in Paris following his escape from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. His return to Paris inaugurated the Hundred Days, a period that ended with his loss at the Battle of Waterloo. The snuffbox, which measures almost 4 inches in diameter, is made from horn, and the image probably was stamped from a thin sheet of gilded bronze.
The snuffbox portrays a reunion that never occurred. When Napoléon fled Elba, Marie-Louise was living with her father, Emperor Francis II of Austria, and he forbade her or her son to travel to Paris. Following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoléon was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821 without ever having seen his wife and child again. “It’s wishful thinking,” owner David Markham says of the image. “It was what the people of France wanted: Napoléon, the empress, and the son united in Paris. If it’s not a reflection of reality, it’s certainly a reflection of desire.”
Markham is a professional historian who focuses on Napoléon. He has authored four books, including Napoleon for Dummies, and his fifth book, The Road to Helena: Napoléon after Waterloo, will be published in April by Pen and Sword Books. He is the executive vice president of the International Napoleonic Society, a scholarly organization devoted to studying Napoléon, and he recently completed a three-year term as president of the Chicago-based Napoleonic Alliance. Each episode of Napoleon 101, a podcast that Markham produces once or twice a month, is downloaded as many as 30,000 times. He resides in Olympia, Wash.
Markham purchased the snuffbox at an antiques shop in Paris in 1989, not long after he began collecting Napoléon-related items. “I have no other image precisely like it. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that [the snuffbox] was almost certainly made in the three-week period before Napoléon reached Paris,” he says, adding that Napoléon or one of his confederates may have commissioned the piece in advance of the event. Markham notes that the emperor is shown without his imperial crown. “That’s a deliberate decision on someone’s part,” he says. “It also might be an indication that he wanted people to think about him coming back to restore the reforms of the French Revolution.”
Markham owns more than 1,000 books about the emperor and more than 500 Napoléon-themed items, including about 150 snuffboxes, which he displays throughout his home. “The guy had everything you could want,” Markham says of Napoléon. “Glory, intrigue, a rise from obscurity to great power, a fall, a comeback. It’s an absolutely amazing story that’s fascinated people for centuries. He’s become an icon of Western civilization. I firmly believe that 2,000 years from now, we’ll look back on Napoléon the way we look back on Caesar or Alexander the Great.”