Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask was almost thrown out with the trash

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NEW ORLEANS(WGNO) - The death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte is an integral piece of history and a treasure for the Cabildo's collection, but it's a mask that almost got thrown out with the trash.

In 1682, the French settled in Louisiana, claiming the land that is now New Orleans as their property.

Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military and political leader rose to prominence during the French revolution.  He was later exiled, and legend has it that New Orleans was willing to take him in, even though he never made it to Louisiana.

He was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he later died on May 6, 1821. At the time of his death it was customary to make death masks for anyone who was of importance. Bonaparte's physician, Dr. François Carlo Antommarchi, cast the original death mask of Napoleon's face, brought it to Paris and had it cast out of bronze.

Antommarchi then brought the mask to New Orleans and presented it to the city in the Cabildo in 1834. It was moved to  Gallier Hall, and there it stayed through the Civil War. But after the Civil War, the mask was almost lost forever.

Louisiana State Museum Historian Karen Leathem said in 1866, just after the Civil War, there were some renovations happening at Gallier Hall.

"People might not have realized the significance of the piece, so it was just tossed out as you might toss out lots of things when you're renovating a place," she explained.

As the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure, especially to the treasurer of New Orleans at the time.

The treasurer spotted the mask on the back of a trash wagon and offered to buy it. It was later sold to a native of New Orleans, the president of the Mexican National Railroad, who moved the mask to Atlanta in the 1890s.

People in New Orleans began looking for the artifact and he caught wind, which led to the mask being donated back to the city in 1909.

The mask has had a well-traveled life, and if you're looking to come face-to-face with Napoleon, you can see it on the first floor of the Cabildo.