Lenin's Death Mask Will Go On Sale in New York

Hours after Vladimir Lenin died in January 1924 in his residence in Gorki near Moscow, sculptor Sergei Merkurov was allowed to his deathbed to make three death masks that would immortalize every whisker and pore of the founder of the Soviet state.

Seventy-five years later, one of those masks is on sale with a New York historical collectibles dealer. While experts in Russia sniffed at the mask as a piece of worthless plaster - in a country that does not lack for Lenin heads - one Russian newspaper said its price could be $250,000 or more.

The copy in question is one of the three that were made from the same original wax mask - and thus were more precise than later copies made from the plaster versions. One went to the Central Lenin Museum and another to the Lenin Museum in Gorki. The sculptor kept the third copy.

It's apparently that copy that's being offered for sale by University Archives, a historical collectibles dealer that states on its web site that the cast was brought to the United States on Sept. 15, 1998 with the permission of the Culture Ministry, which rules on the exportability of historical artifacts. University Archives declined to comment on the potential sale price.

Kommersant newspaper claimed in a front-page article that the sale price could be $250,000 to $500,000, without naming a source. Experts differed.

"If the mask comes from Merkurov's personal archive, it's a very precise copy that may have high value - not the plaster cast itself but its legend," said Grigory Garazha, chief curator at the Central Lenin Museum. "It's both priceless and worthless.

Nikita Kaledkin of the Culture Ministry's department of expertise, import and export of cultural treasures said Merkurov gave the mask as a gift to his friend Sergei Alyoshin, also a sculptor, whose daughter sold it for $4,000 to a collector Kaledkin could not identify.

Andrei Leshchinsky, director of the St. Petersburg department for preservation of cultural valuables, confirmed granting the permission to export the mask.

Leshchinsky argued that the value was reduced by the fact that the plaster casts can be reproduced from the original wax, or from another plaster copy.

"I've seen dozens of similar casts of Lenin's and Peter the Great's death masks. It's a serial reproduction thing by definition," Leshchinsky said.

He said the value could not be much more than $1,000 under any circumstances.