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U.S. Auction Stirs Controversy With Sale of Lenin Death Mask

Published: June 17, 2014 (Issue # 1815)



  • The death mask is on sale at an online auction run from New Hampshire.
    Photo: RR Auction

  • On show in Moscow, one of the three masks that Merkurov made in 1924.
    Photo: Vladimir Filonov / SPT

In the quasi-religious personality cult surrounding Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the leader's death mask became for many the Holy Grail — second, perhaps, only to the mummy that still resides on Red Square. The relic, supposedly one of three originals cast by sculptor Sergei Merkurov, is now up for auction through a Boston-based dealer, which estimates it will fetch $35,000-$40,000.

But 90 years after Lenin's death led to a brutal competition for succession, the mask continues to stir up controversy. The sculptor's family has vowed to stop the online auction, which concludes on June 18, saying it is illegal. Beyond their complaint lies a greater question: Is the mask even real?

On the frosty night of January 21, 1924, Merkurov was summoned to the estate of Gorky, where Vladimir Lenin had just died after suffering his final, fatal stroke, to preserve the leader's visage. Merkurov, legend has it, initially cast three plaster masks of Lenin's face. The first mask went to the Central Lenin Museum, the second went to the Gorky estate, and the sculptor kept the final mask for himself.

It is this last mask, RR Auction says, that was eventually sold by a member of the family to an agent in the U.S., where it was acquired by the well-known Russian collector Sasha Lurye, and then resold to another private collector.

Beyond some chipping around the eyebrows and a weathered patina that apparently testifies to its age, a photograph on the auction house's website reveals the mask to be in fine condition, with the famous signature "Gorky, 22 January, 1924, 4 a.m., S. Merkurov" visible below Lenin's cheek on the right-hand side.

The story, however, quickly gets murky.

To mark Lenin's funeral, the sculptor made 14 masks to distribute to members of the Soviet elite, including secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. But Merkurov, who authored dozens of monumental Lenin and Stalin statues across the Soviet Union, was "clever," says death mask historian Dmitry Shlyonsky.

"It seems that he kept a mold with which he would from time to time cast new masks, passing them off as originals," he said.

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