Napoleon's death mask to auction for $91,500?

A rare cast of the death mask of French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), who died in exile on the isolated island of Saint Helena, is to auction at Bonhams London on June 19.

The 'Boys cast' is expected to achieve £40,000-60,000 ($60,986-91,480).

Napoleon death mask
Taking a cast of someone's face was a way of producing an objective likeness before the advent of photography

Made for the reverend Richard Boys, then-senior chaplain of Saint Helena and Napoleon's regular chess opponent, the cast is one of only a handful with a provenance directly linking it to the island.

Although many Napoleon death masks exist, only four copies have been certified as authentic. An unauthenticated bronze cast sold for $3,875 at Heritage Auctions in December 2008.

After Napoleon's death on May 5, 1821, two doctors, Napoleon's personal physician Francesco Antommarchi and British doctor Francis Burton, argued for two days over who would make the death mask.

Eventually, it was decided that Francesco Antommarchi would undertake the work, with the help of portrait painter JW Rubidge.

While the squabbling was taking place, intense heat affected the cadaver. Bonhams' Matthew Haley comments: "By the time the cast for the mask was made, Napoleon's body had begun to decompose in the fierce heat and, as was noted at the time, his features had changed quite markedly.

"The very last image we have of Napoleon, therefore, is more of that of a saint than the man of action and resolution carefully engineered in the portraits painted during his lifetime."

The mask was given to Richard Boys by Rubidge before Napoleon's entourage departed the island. It is inscribed "Rev Mr Boys" and comes with a note 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 M.A. Sen.r Chaplain/ by Rubidge".

It is offered from the collection of Andrew Boys - a direct descendent of Richard Boys - who was "rather surprised and taken aback" to hear that he had inherited the mask at a family funeral.

Having been confined to the attic, Boys decided to sell the rare cast in the hope that more people would be able to see and enjoy the item.

We currently have a range of Napoleon collectibles in stock.

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