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: www.swedishnightingale.com