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Death mask of Napoleon makes £170,000 at Bonhams
The cast – known as the ‘Boys cast’ - was made for the Rev Richard Boys, Senior Chaplain of St Helena and is one of only a tiny handful with a provenance linking it directly to the island. Photo: Bonhams.
LONDON.- An extraordinary cast of the death mask of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, made shortly after his death on the island of St Helena on 5 May 1821, was sold for £169,250 at Bonhams Book, Map and Manuscript sale in Knightsbridge, London today (19 June). It had been estimated at £40,000-60,000.

The cast – known as the ‘Boys cast’ - was made for the Rev Richard Boys, Senior Chaplain of St Helena and is one of only a tiny handful with a provenance linking it directly to the island. 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.

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, J.W. 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 M.A. Sen.r Chaplain/ By Rubidge".

Boys is recorded as having played chess with Napoleon and is said to have brought several mementos of Napoleon with him on his return to England eight years later. He was a strict moralist who made himself unpopular by preaching sermons against the loose living of senior members of the British garrison. As a result he was viewed as something of a liability by the British Authorities and well regarded by the French continent on the Island. This may explain why he managed to secure such an intimate memento of the Emperor as this impression of his death mask.

Head of Bonhams UK Book Department, Matthew Haley said: “This mask is a fascinating reflection on the nature of power and its projection. 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 that of a saint than the man of action and resolution carefully engineered in the portraits painted during his lifetime. ”

Felix Pryor, a consultant in Bonhams Book, Map and Manuscript Department: “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. 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”.

Owner of the mask, Andrew Boys, explains how it came down through his family and into his hands: “At a family funeral I was rather surprised and taken aback, to hear that I had been left this mask. After a while I realized its significance but I was not sure what to do with it beyond ensuring its safety. To date it has been confined to an attic but I most definitely did not want this to happen for another generation. I came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to offer it for sale in the hope that, as a result, it was something more people would then be able to see and enjoy”.



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