The provenance of a death mask of James Joyce bought by the National Library of Ireland is under question.

On 13 January 1941, Irish writer James Joyce died in a Zurich hospital. With the approval of his wife Nora, a friend of the family commissioned a local artist to make a death mask.

Two plaster of paris masks were made, possibly a third.

One of the masks was subsequently given to the Joyce Tower Museum in Sandycove where it is still on display. In the 1980s, a row broke out when an attempt was made to auction this mask.

According to Sotheby's catalogue, one of the previous owners of the mask was film director John Huston, which means that it can not be one of the originals.

Robert Nicholls, curator at James Joyce Tower, says that the provenance of the mask is that it came from John Huston which makes the mask bought by the National Library a copy. Robert Nicholls says there are three originals, one in Zurich, one in the James Joyce Tower and one in the Library of Congress.

The mask in the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich is number one. That in James Joyce Tower is mask number two. And the third original mask has been in the Washington Library of Congress since 1946.

As all three original masks are accounted for, a question remains over the mask that the National Library has purchased. Dr Fritz Seen of the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich says that a DNA test would need to be done to identify the real ones.

The mask auctioned by Sotheby’s this week and bought by the National Library of Ireland for £55,000 was on display at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia for the last eight years.

Sotheby’s claim that the mask was ascribed in their catalogue using information available at the time. Errors and omissions to the records have since been pointed out and Sotheby’s say they take these very seriously. Talks are due to take place between the vendor and the National Library to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion.

An RTÉ News report broadcast on 12 July 2001. The reporter is Colm Connolly.