By James Rogers
Published August 13, 2019
A mysterious bronze death mask of French Emperor Napoleon offers a macabre glimpse into his death in exile on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena.
The mask was cast from a mold taken shortly after Napoleon’s death, according to New Orleans gallery M.S. Rau Antiques, which is selling the unusual artifact for $34,500. Napoleon, who had been exiled to the British territory of St. Helena following his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo, died on May 5, 1821.
The 250th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth is Aug. 15.
The story of how the cast came into being, however, has been the source of some debate.
“There remains some dispute about who took the original ‘parent cast’ of the deposed emperor, explains M.S. Rau Antiques on its website. While it was once thought that Napoleon’s personal physician, Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, took the original plaster-of-Paris cast, it is now thought that the cast was taken by British Army doctor Francis Burton on May 7, 1821.
“After setting it to dry, he reluctantly entrusted it to a Madame Bertrand, who had been a member of Napoleon’s court and shared his exile, for safekeeping until it was dry enough to pack away,” says M.S. Rau. “Unfortunately, Madame Bertrand must have had no intention of giving this precious item up, and removed all but the back third part of the mask before returning to France with her husband.”
"Madame Bertrand is believed to have given the mask to Dr. Antommarchi, who then had bronze and plaster casts made of it while he resided in France,” M.S. Rau added.
The mask is inscribed “Dr. F. Antommarchi” and “Fondu Par L. Richard et Quesnel A Paris,” a reference to the Paris foundry of Louis-Marie Richard and Edouard Quesnel, where the mask was cast.
Although Napoleon was initially buried on St. Helena, his remains were returned to France in 1840 and interred at Les Invalides in Paris.
The death mask is one of a number of Napoleon death mask casts in existence. The most famous is in the Louisiana State Museum’s Cabildo in New Orleans, according to M.S. Rau Antiques.
The New Orleans gallery also has the writing desk used by Napoleon on St. Helena in its collection.
One of the key figures in European history, Napoleon remains a source of fascination. Last year, an extremely rare ‘bicorne,’ or two-pointed hat, that was worn by the French leader at the Battle of Waterloo was sold at auction for $325,000.
Buttons from uniforms worn by soldiers in Napoleon’s army that invaded Russia were recently uncovered in Lithuania.
In a separate project, archaeologists recently discovered amputated limbs from the site of a field hospital used in the Battle of Waterloo.
The first complete Battle of Waterloo skeleton was identified in 2015 as a German soldier.
Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers