Bowers spent the first part of his career in farming before taking a fine art degree at Southampton Solent University aged 49. He later worked as a saleroom assistant at Bonhams in Oxford, then as a consultant in the art trade before retiring.
ATG: How did you get the collecting bug?
Graham Bowers: I collected coins as a boy. Both my mother and father were interested in history and being able to own an item such as a coin that had witnessed the Roman occupation or perhaps the Norman invasion of our land seemed somehow so special.
What drew you to collecting Napoleon memorabilia particularly?
As I grew older my attention seemed more and more drawn towards historical characters who tried to take advantage of the opportunities the times they were living in gave them. First Cesar Borgia, then Oliver Cromwell. But soon a name more than all others seemed to resound through the years: that of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I was particularly drawn to the St Helena period and the thought of what it must have been like for Napoleon to be the most famous man in the world yet to be the only prisoner in Longwood House [the mansion on St Helena].
Yes, you have companions but they are there by choice and can leave any time they want to. He did not have that option.
Can you remember your first item?
The first item I purchased was a silver franc and I knew this was just the start.
Where do you find items to buy?
I have found them in charity shops and high-end auctions and everything in between.
It’s being able to identify the object that counts, not who is selling it.
What elements do you look for when considering a purchase?
It depends on what period of Napoleon’s life it represents that attracts me to an item. A piece from Egypt evokes a young man trying to make his name in the world. A letter signed by Josephine evokes a lovesick boy totally beguiled by a sophisticated woman. I like items that tell a story of men and women living through extraordinary times.
How large is your collection and where do you store it?
My collection consists of dozens of coins, medallions, pictures and prints as well as many, many, many documents. Not to mention busts of Napoleon, figures of marshals and other notables (but not Wellington or Talleyrand).
The figures, coins and medallions are in display cabinets in my home and the pictures are on the walls.
What is the most you ever spent on an item and which is your favourite?
I am not rich so, as you can imagine in the field of Napoleonic memorabilia, you find yourself up against some rather high rollers.
The most I have spent is around $1000 on two signatures cut from larger documents. I bought them at a New York auction about 15 years ago from the Dr Philip Corso Napoleonic Collection at Christie’s.
One is an N with a flourish dated 1813. Napoleon would sign letters he had read with his initial. The other is signed Bonaparte which he used when he was First Consul in 1802.
These are among my favourite pieces in my collection.
Another favourite is a signature from General [Henri-Jacques- Guillaume] Clarke signing a direct order from troops to move in Germany. I like this piece as it connects directly to what was happening at the time in Napoleon’s armies.
Have you considered selling any items from the collection?
I do on very rare occasions sell the odd double.
Do you collect anything else?
For the last 20 years or so I have only collected items of Napoleonic interest.
Have you visited any locations associated with Napoleon?
Yes, I have visited his tomb in Paris at Les Invalides about 10 years ago on his birthday – August 15. I have also visited Château de Malmaison on the outskirts of Paris where he lived with Josephine.
Is there one item you are still looking for?
I would dearly love to own a signature of Napoleon on a document from St Helena. It is not that they are rare but they are very desirable. I am far from the only collector who covets such an item so for now it will remain an ambition.
Do you keep in touch with people you studied with in Southampton?
I studied with Clare Durham at Woolley & Wallis, Peter Greenway at Roseberys, Ben Randall at Fellows and Stroud Auctions’ Mark Rozelaar.
I occasionally speak to former peers about Napoleon items that might be consigned at their auction houses.