St Helena Online

Doubts voiced as Napoleon death mask is auctioned

A death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte was due to be auctioned by Bonhams in London on 19 June 2013 with an expected price of £40,000 to £60,000 – but historian John Tyrrell has questioned its authenticity.

The Bonhams online catalogue said it was cast for the Rev Richard Boys, senior chaplain on St Helena at the time of Napoleon’s death in 1821. It said he wrote a note of authentification.

It added: “It is, we believe, the most significant example of Napoleon’s death mask remaining in private hands, and indubitably one of only a tiny handful with a provanance linking it directly to St Helena.”

But John Tyrrell, in his online journal Reflections on a Journey to St Helena, recalls a controversy over death masks of the emperor involving island medic Dr Burton, and the disappearance of part of the original cast of Napoleon’s face.

He writes: “It seems strange that no word about the masks’ existence came out at the time, amidst so much controversy… over the disappearance of the front part of Burton’s original mould.

“Surely the Rev Boys would have heard about the court case in London and would have provided any evidence in his possession to see that justice was done?”

He also notes that the chaplain had two copies of the death mask.

“It is also strange that both masks appear to have been made of plaster superior to any known to be available on St Helena at the time,” he says.

“Finally I wonder how [he] managed to secure two masks, a little greedy for a man of the cloth, when others with stronger claims got none?”

He goes on to challenge a claim that the chaplain – who lived at Kent’s Cottage – became close to the French community at Longwood because he shared its hostility to Governor Hudson Lowe.

In fact, he says, an historical account suggests Boys had contact with Longwood only once – and may not have met Napoleon even then.

Read John’s full post here. The Bonhams catalogue is here.

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