During the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, it was customary to cast a death mask of a great leader who had recently died. A mixture of wax or plaster was carefully placed over Napoleon's face and removed after the form had hardened. From this impression, subsequent copies were cast. Much mystery and controversy surrounds the origins and whereabouts of the most original cast moulds. There are only four genuine bronze death masks known to exist.
Napoleon's original death mask was created on 7th May 1821, a day and a half after he died on the island of St. Helena at the age of 51.
It is commonly believed that Dr. Antommarchi (one of the many doctors that encircled Napoleon's deathbed) cast the original "parent mould", which would spawn many bronze copies. Some historians dispute this, claiming that the surgeon Francis Burton, of Britain's Sixty-Sixth Regiment at St. Helena, cast the original mould and it was Dr. Burton, too, who presided at the emperor's autopsy. Antommarchi obtained from his British colleagues a secondary plaster mould from Burton's original cast. With his own mould, Antommarchi later made, in France, copies of the death mask in both bronze and plaster.
It is believed that Madame Bertrand, Napoleon's attendant, managed to steal part of the cast, leaving Burton with just the ears and back of the head. He took Bertrand to court in an attempt to get the cast back, but failed. A year later Madame Bertrand gave Antommarchi a copy of the mask, from which he had several copies made. One of these he sent to Lord Burghersh, the British envoy (representative) in Florence, asking him to pass it to the famous sculptor, Antonio Canova. Unfortunately Canova died before he had time to use the mask and instead the piece remained with Burghersh. The National Museums Liverpool version, cast by E. Quesnel, is thought to be a descendant of that mask.
Some people believe that Dr. Antommarchi lived in Cuba for a short period of time and contracted yellow fever. While there he lived on his cousin's coffee plantation and became close to General Juan de Moya. Before Dr. Antommarchi died, he made General Moya a death mask from his mould. It is believed that the mask still resides in The Museum in Santiago de Cuba, province of Oriente, where there was a large group of French immigrants that established coffee plantations in the high mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
New Orleans authorities moved their death mask in 1853. During the tumult that accompanied the Civil War, the mask disappeared. A former city treasurer spotted the mask in 1866 as it was being hauled to the dump in a junk wagon. Rather than return the mask to the city, the treasurer took the mask home and put it on display there. Eventually Napoleon's death mask wound up in the Atlanta home of Captain William Greene Raoul, president of the Mexican National Railroad. Finally, in 1909, Napoleon's death mask made its way back to New Orleans. Captain Raoul read a newspaper article about the missing mask and wrote to the mayor of its whereabouts. In exchange for suitable acknowledgement, Raoul agreed to donate the death mask to New Orleans. The mayor transferred the mask to the Louisiana State Museum that year.