Nearly 200 years after he died in lonely exile, Napoleon Bonaparte refuses to rest in peace.
Today, he -- or rather his death mask -- is piquing the curiosity of collectors and curators from London to New Orleans to North Carolina and Pittsburgh.
Bonhams, a London auction house, is selling today what it calls "the most significant example" of any privately owned death mask of Napoleon in existence, noting that it is "indubitably one of only a tiny handful" linked directly to the original mask constructed two days after the disgraced, defeated emperor of France died on May 5, 1821, after six years on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.
At least one expert is dubious.
"In a sense, all the known copies of the mask can in some roundabout, distant way be linked to St. Helena, so I highly question Bonhams' assertion," said Neil Fulghum, a retired curator at the University of North Carolina's Collection Gallery in Chapel Hill, which has its own secondary cast of a Napoleon death mask.
That mask was made, he said, by Napoleon's personal physician, Francois Carlo Antommarchi, after he returned to France from the island.
But Bonhams' catalog asserts that its cast of the mask was presented to a British chaplain on the island, the Rev. Richard Boys, "which is news to me," Mr. Fulghum said.
"The British surgeons who presided at Napoleon's autopsy at Longwood [his residence on the island] made a mask as a record for positive identification of their subject," he added, while allowing "their attending colleague, Antommarchi, to have another copy for his own record and use. Just how many masks were actually made on the island cannot be said with any certainty."
In response, Bonhams issued a statement noting that the mask's provenance lies in a handwritten note by Boys noting that the cast had been taken from Napoleon's face on May 7, 1821, "and we have no reason to question Boys' good faith."
Prior to photography's invention, death masks and life masks were an important tool in an artist's arsenal, not to mention a fashionable way to remember the rich, the prominent and the notorious, from George Washington to Vladimir Lenin to John Dillinger. There's a life mask of Abraham Lincoln at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland that the president submitted to just a few months before his death in 1865, said curator Michael Kraus.
"The mouth is a little twisted, the cheekbones really sunken, he's really haggard" in comparison to a life mask made of Lincoln five years earlier, he added. "You would think it would not be possible to age that fast."
Molds of Napoleon's death mask aren't exactly rare. Besides those in Chapel Hill and Europe, secondary or later casts of the Corsican conqueror's face can be found in collections in Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago -- and New Orleans, once the target of Napoleon's imperial ambitions. New Orleans' fabled historical museum, The Cabildo, displays a bronze copy of his death mask, which was presented to the city in 1834 by Antommarchi, but officials declined to comment on today's auction or the controversy over its links to St. Helena.
Pittsburgh's Napoleon mask, given to the former Western Pennsylvania Historical Society (now Heinz History Center) in the late 1940s, doesn't have the same pride of place as the one in New Orleans -- perhaps because Napoleon doesn't resonate in the same way here as in Louisiana, the only state in the U.S. where, as Stanley Kowalski famously pointed out in "A Streetcar Named Desire," laws are based on the Napoleonic Code.
The Pittsburgh mask, which is in storage, is unsigned, said Anne Madarasz, a curator and museum division director at the center. It looks almost exactly like the one for sale at Bonhams, but with much more wear and tear. It was donated in the late 1940s by the daughters of the late John Francies, along with a death mask of Oliver Cromwell, but little else is known about it. Francies was at one point the warden of Western Penitentiary (now State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh), and later Allegheny County treasurer, Ms. Madarasz said.
The mystery behind the making of Napoleon's death mask has agitated scholars and collectors for years.
Bloggers also got busy after Bonhams announced its auction -- John Tyrell, who has lots of Napoleonophiles following his blog "Reflections on a Journey to St Helena," declared that the auction house had produced no direct evidence that the mask had been made on the island.
Bonhams' catalog tells a story of scheming and betrayal, with a whiff of geopolitics, revolving around whether Napoleon's captors, the British, would be permitted to make the mask on a body already in an advanced state of decomposition or would the French, via Antommarchi, do it.
Researchers for Bonhams' quote prior historical accounts that say Antommarchi made the mask, promising the British they would get a copy. But then, a certain Madame Bertrand, an attendant to Napoleon and in league with the doctor, stole the original plaster cast's face, leaving the British with just the ears and the back of the head,
Napoleon's French entourage then beat a hasty retreat out of St. Helena on May 27, but not, apparently, before ensuring that two copies were given to a British chaplain on the island -- the Rev. Richard Boys, supposedly a frequent chess partner of Napoleon's who repeatedly denounced British authorities for tolerating lax moral standards on St. Helena.
Mr. Tyrell and others believe the connection between Boys and Napoleon is sketchy -- that they were in contact only once. Bonhams' catalog acknowledges that, but cites other reports that the British chaplain was the first to greet Napoleon when he arrived and "got on well with Napoleon in the Frenchman's final years on the British island, and earned the mask as a reward for their friendship."
Today, Bonhams says one of the two masks given to Boys is at Oxford; the other is on their auction block, and there are hopes it will reap anywhere between $60,000 to $90,000.
Certain Napoleonophiles aren't buying it, though, including North Carolina's Mr. Fulghum.
"I always thought it a bit surprising as well that the British authorities on St. Helena would allow Napoleon's physician to return to France with such an object," he said, "one that would no doubt become an object of adoration and be used to replicate, both in bronze and plaster, icons to perpetuate the glories of this notorious and implacable enemy of Great Britain."
On the other hand, he said, the mask "would at least serve as irrefutable proof to even Napoleon's most diehard supporters that their beloved hero would never return."
It would seem, however, 192 years later, Napoleon has never really gone away.
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com; 412-263-1949; on Twitter @MackenziePG.