Jenny Lind ‘scarecrow’ expected to fetch thousands

A figurehead from the prow of a 19th century ship once kept by a Swedish farmer as a scarecrow is expected to fetch up to $150,000 when it goes on sale at Sotheby's New York auction rooms in January.

The figurehead, which depicts 19th century Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, was sold to Gothenburg antique dealer Karl-Eric Svärdskog in 1994. He dedicated the next thirteen years to tracing the piece’s history.

The farmer who sold the piece, which was stored in a barn and covered in dirt and cobwebs, told Svärdskog that it was a scarecrow. Svärdskog soon realized that the statue was no ordinary scarecrow, and identified it as a figurehead from a ship.

He eventually matched the figure with a well-known statue of Jenny Lind, who was a popular figurehead on both Swedish and American ships at the time.

After painstaking research, Svärdskog realized that despite having been found in Sweden, the statue was not from a Swedish ship at all. He eventually traced the figurehead to the American-built clipper Nightingale.

The ship had a mixed history, starting out by carrying Americans to Australia for the gold rush. It then spent ten years carrying tea from China to London, before a brief period as a slave ship carrying Africans from Angola to Cuba. In the American Civil War, the ship was a cruiser in the Federal Navy.

The Nightingale sank in the Atlantic in 1893, but prior to this its final port had been Kragerö, Norway.

After digging around in the town, Svärdskog discovered that the ship had undergone repairs in Kragerö in 1885, during which the figurehead had been removed. He was later told by an inhabitant of the farm on which it was found that a relative had bought the ‘scarecrow’ in Norway, where it had been taken from a ship. The American statue of the Swedish opera singer had thereby quite by coincidence found its way to Sweden.

Svärdskog has written a book about his quest to piece together the history of the Jenny Lind figurehead. The search for information had dominated years of his life, he said:

“All my free time has been dedicated to the figurehead and to writing the book. It has been a huge job.”

“I would love to keep it,” he told The Local, “but selling it will generate a bit of money.”

“My wife will be glad not to have to look at it any more,” Svärdskog added.

Svärdskog has since given up the antiques trade, and is now a special needs teacher.

“After finding this – the find of my life – it was no longer quite as exciting to be an antique dealer.”

“For thirteen years now I have been married to this woman, ‘Jenny Lind’. She has changed my life completely, and now that I’ve learned her story, I want to share this extraordinary figure of beauty and history with others,” he said of his decision to sell, according to a release from Sotheby’s.

There are two copies of the figurehead, one of which is in the bar of a cruise ship in the Caribbean – ironic, Svärdskog says, as Lind herself detested alcohol. The other is being sold alongside the original at Sotheby’s.

Nancy Druckman, head of Sotheby’s American Folk Art department, praised Svärdskog’s efforts to trace the figurehead’s history:

“This remarkable piece has a fascinating past – which is exceptionally well-documented – that brings to life this particular ship and sheds light upon maritime history, as well as aspects of American and Swedish history,” she said.

Svärdskog says he will be at the auction on January 19th, where he will answer questions about the piece. Private collectors and museums are expected to be among the bidders, but if he could choose himself, he would like to see the figurehead placed within earshot of the sound of opera:

“My dream is that she ends up in the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York,” he said.


More information about the Jenny Lind figurehead can be found at Karl-Erik Svärdskog’s homepage:


Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google’s questions

Why is Sweden called Sweden? Why is Sweden so depressing? Why is Sweden so rich?  In a new series of articles, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you type "Why is Sweden..." into the Google search engine.  

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google's questions
Why is Sweden actually called Sweden? Let's find out. Photo: Google screenshot

The short answer to “why is Sweden called Sweden?” is that it’s not. It’s called Sverige

When The Local asked Henrik Williams, a Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, he also gave the question a short answer: “Because it’s inhabited by Swedes.” 

We can trace some form of the name back to at least the 13th century, when it was called Swearike in Old Swedish. That translates to “the kingdom of the Swear”.

Two thousand years ago, some of the people living in what is now known as Sweden were called Svear or Suiones, depending on which language you spoke and on how you spelled things (spelling varied greatly). 

The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first known description of the Svear in a book written in the year 93 CE, Germania

Everything comes down to this word, Svear, the name of the people. It means ‘we ourselves’. The Svear lived in Uppland just north of where Stockholm is now, until about the 11th century when they started expanding their territory. 

“It’s very common that people call themselves, either ‘we ourselves’ or ‘the people’” said Professor Williams. 

“We are ‘the humans’ and everybody else is something else. Everyone else is ‘them'”.

Of course, nobody uses the word in that way now, but it still forms the basis of the word Sweden.

The 8th century epic poem Beowulf gives the earliest known recorded version of the word Sweoland, land of the Swear

But at that time, there was no Sweden. Instead, the land was occupied by little kingdoms of Swedes and Goths (in present-day Götaland) and warring tribes of Vikings.

It’s unclear when the King of the Swear started referring to himself as the king of a country called Sweden, but it was probably around the time the country adopted Christianity in the 11th century. 

“Sweden” only came into regular use after 1750, when it replaced “Swedeland” in English. But in Scotland, “Sweden” had been used since the beginning of the modern era.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 17th century, people would use Sweden as the name of the people, and Swedeland as the name of the country. 

The first attested use of ‘Sweden’ was in a Scottish timber accounting log in 1503, which refers to “Sweden boards.” 

Most countries went from the Old Norse word Svíþjóð (which is still used to describe Sweden in Icelandic today) and turned it into something in their own languages, like the Old English Swíoríce, the Middle Dutch Zweden and High German Schweden

But it’s not called Sweden everywhere. 

In Finnish, Sweden is Ruotsi, in Estonian it’s Rootsi, and in Northern Sami Ruoŧŧa.

This comes from the root-word Rod, as in modern day Roslagen the coastal part of Uppland. It means rowing, or people who row. And because Finland was invaded by people from Roslagen, that’s how Finns referred to them.