Death Mask


Creator: Unknown
Title: Death Mask
Medium: Unknown
Date: 1800's
Provenance: James Pongrass Collection

Around Christmas 1967, I was Christmas shopping in downtown Cleveland at the Higbee Company. While browsing around this Cleveland landmark department store, I noticed these unusual objects lining this long table. They were the most unusual ‘things’ I have ever encountered at a departmenT store. There was a newspaper article attached to the display. I picked up a copy of the article and began reading the fascinating story connected to these objects. Unfortunately, I do not have this article but I remember it as if I read it yesterday.

The story goes like this. There was a buyer with Higbee’s that was also an antique collector. He had read about an up and coming estate sale in southern Ohio and decided to search it out in hopes to come across some things for himself.

He was walking around this farm that had once belonged to this religious sect in the 1800’s. Over the years the sect disbanded and the farm and all it’s possessions were go to be auction off. As he was looking around the barn, hoping to find something of interest to bid on, he tripped on something in the straw and dirt covered wood floor in the barn. He brushed away the debris and noticed this metal ring attached to the wood floor. He was suspicious and looked for one of the auctioneers. They cleaned the debris away from the area and discovered that there was a trap door. The auctioneer opened the trap door and saw a crude set of steps leading down. The auctioneer and the antique collector descended the steps in the dark. Discovering, that there were no lights, the auctioneer asked for a flash light. After reaching to bottom of the steps and shinning the light, they discovered to their amazement and area of shelves with totally dust covered somethings on them. On further inspection and cleaning the years of dust off the ‘somethings’, these were crude face like masks.

Not having the time to research these masks and the auctioneer not really knowing himself what these mask were still decided to auction them off. The collector now buyer was the lucky bidder. I assume he purchased some for himself or maybe not. It was never divulged. Some or all were on sale at the Christmas sale at Higbee’s.

The buyer did more research and discovered that they were in fact “Death Masks” of former sect members. The cast of the deceased face was made and then, the cast was filled with a cement like substance and around to harden. This would preserve the facial expression of the sect member.

I was so struck by these objects, I had to purchase some. I only choose three at the time. I wish I had bought them all, looking back now….

We moved to Australia a few years after I acquired these make and I believe the newspaper article was lost in the move....