The strange tale of Nelson Mandela’s gold-cast hands

Danielle Bochove of Bloomberg Businessweek writes that in May 2003, Nelson Mandela – the late former South African president, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and hero to millions – sat down at the dinner table of his house in Johannesburg and laid his right hand, palm side down, into a lump of cold dental putty. A team of technicians from the precision-casting division of Harmony Gold Mining Co. was present to supervise, and Mandela chatted amiably with them as they worked, pausing to sip coffee with his free hand. The silicon-based putty had been chilled to make it harden more slowly, but the men had only six minutes of malleability to work with, time they used to get the material into every wrinkle and crease, almost perfectly capturing Mandela’s fingerprints as well as the scars from his hard labour on Robben Island. Then they poured more on top to encase his knuckles and fingernails.

Harmony would use the moulds from that day to create resin replicas, then a casting of Mandela’s hand in 99.999% pure gold. This prototype was to be the first in a series: At least 27 gold hands, weighing 5.7 pounds to 8.8 pounds each, to mark the years of his imprisonment, followed by silver versions for each month, and finally thousands of bronze copies to mark each day. They would be sold to raise money for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the charity to which he devoted much of his time in retirement and serve as advertisements for Harmony’s casting expertise in the process. Throughout the making of the moulds, Mandela was “amazingly helpful, patient, and funny, and he kept everyone entertained with stories,” according to an account in the company newspaper, Harmonise.

That may well have been the happiest that Mandela ever felt about the project. Not long after the castings were made, he became concerned that too many people were profiting from ‘Mandela art,’ a cottage industry that included selling sketches he’d purportedly drawn and putting his face on dishes, teapots, and commemorative tchotchkes. After Mandela dispatched a team of lawyers to shut down the trade, Harmony stopped producing hands, leaving only a tiny initial batch. The project was largely forgotten. Except, that is, by Malcolm Duncan. Then a 47-year-old auto parts entrepreneur, Duncan had met Mandela a few years before, during an event at a cancer clinic in the township of Soweto.

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Like many who came face to face with the legend, Duncan was overcome. “I couldn’t talk, because he was so humble,” he recalls. “I had such a lump in my throat.” When Duncan learned about the hands, he had to have them. Not long after the castings, he managed to buy four gold examples. He’d wanted two more but couldn’t get them before the project was shut down.

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