Napoleon's death mask fetches 170,000 pounds at auction

London, PTI | Updated : 21 June 2013, 10:05 AM

An extraordinary cast of the death mask of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, which spent years gathering dust in a family attic, has fetched a whopping 169,250 pounds - almost three times its presale estimate – at an auction.

The mask went under the hammer in Bonhams Book, Map and Manuscript sale in Knightsbridge, London, on Wednesday. It had been estimated at 40,000-60,000 pounds.

The cast - known as the 'Boys cast' - was made for the Rev Richard Boys, Senior Chaplain of St Helena, shortly after Napoleon's death on the island of St Helena on May 5, 1821.

It was the most significant example remaining in private hands and bears an autograph note of authentication written by Boys. All but one of the other examples are in national collections, either in France or in Corsica.

It was being sold by Andrew Boys, a direct descendent of the original owner's brother who decided to sell the mask after it had spend years sitting in the attic of his house.

After Napoleon's death, there was a protracted wrangle over whether his physician, Francesco Antommarchi, or the British doctor, Francis Burton, should make a death mask.

Practical difficulties also meant that this was not done until 7 May, two days after the former Emperor had died.

The mask was given to the Rev Richard Boys by the portrait painter, JW Rubidge, who assisted Antommarchi in making the mask. Boys received it before Napoleon's entourage left the island towards the end of May.

The mask is inscribed "Rev Mr Boys" on the inside of the cast, and comes with a note by Boys reading: "This Cast was taken from the Face of Napoleon Buonaparte as he lay dead at Longwood St Helena 7th May 1821 which I do hereby certify/ R Boys MA Sen.r Chaplain/ By Rubidge".

"Before the invention of photography, taking a cast from a person's face was the one way of producing what may be described as an objective likeness. These masks were most often taken after death," said Felix Pryor, a consultant in Bonhams Book, Map and Manuscript Department.

"In this they became part of the funerary rites of the dead, the royal dead especially; royal death masks can be traced back to at least the time of Tutankhamun.

"The present death mask of Napoleon can be seen as standing at the end of this long tradition - the world's first photograph was to be taken only five years later," Pryor said.

First Published: Friday, June 21, 2013 10:03 AM
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