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Pancho Villa’s Death Mask… for a fistful of dollars

20 June 2006

It was a weekend for cosmic convergences … or at least two of my favorite kinds of folks came together — weird rich Texans and Pancho Villa enthusiasts.

The weird rich Texan — even better, a weird rich French-born surrealist painter — was Charles Trois, invariably described as a “retired artist”. He’s moving out of Fredericksburg, Texas and putting his little hill country place — described by the sales brochure as a 6485 sqare foot castle on the market. He also had an auction, to dispose of the bibilots that pile up… little must haves like Richard Burton’s old Ferrari and autopsy photos of Lee Harvey Oswald. And… best of all …

THIS!

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Pancho Villa’s death mask (which Trois claimed is the only one in existence, though scholars claim there might be three or four more around somewhere), supposedly made within hours of his assassination on 20 July 1923.

According to Amy Dorsett of the San Antonio Express-News

It’s impossible to appreciate the creepiness of Pancho Villa’s death mask until you see it.Although there are just black holes where the eyes should be, the mask still conjures a vivid image of the famous Mexican outlaw’s face. It’s his prominent mustache, eyebrows and the beginning of his hairline thanks to the scalping that followed his violent death in 1923 that seal the macabre effect.

Trois said that the death mask was made by a confidant of Villa’s and that he has papers to prove its provenance.

Trois, who wouldn’t reveal how much he hopes to make during the action, said he acquired the Villa items several years ago from a private collector in Nashville, Tenn.

Some lucky, obsessive “anonymous buyer” paid 17,000 for the mask. I’m wondering if that anonymous buyer might provide a clue — or the “private collector in Nashville” might have a clue — as to one of the best, and weirdest of unsolved Mex Files: WHO DUG UP PANCHO VILLA IN 1926 AND STOLE HIS HEAD? Maybe that’s best left unsolved — among the improbable suspects (including Laurel and Hardy) are George W. Bush’s grandfather… wouldn’t be prudent to go there.

I wrote — obsessively, like all good fans of Pancho should — about the Caudillo and his enemies, his wives and his missing head (and a side trip into the life of Ramon Novarro) back in February 2005. Lyn Keelan added her reminscences of a 1974 visit to Luz Corral, the “official” widow Villa.

For the really, really obsessive, there are the memoirs of James W. Baker (no relation to the former Secretary of State) who was a ranch manager for some of William Randolph Hearst’s Mexican properties during the Mexican Revolution. To Hearst Pancho Villa was what Saddam Hussain was to the Bush family… a politically useful enemy. Poor Mr. Baker, trying to do right by his employer, recalled meeting Pancho in a 1967 oral interview, part of a series of oral histories and transcripts published on the internet by the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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