Mummified mermaid to sell at Duke’s

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wikicollecting

2015-06-26 10:41:26

Duke’s Auctions have announced the inclusion of a great 19th century hoax, the Fiji mermaid, in their December sale.

The gruesome article has the head and torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish, suggestive of a mummified mermaid. Such items were common in sideshows and circuses throughout the Victorian era, following their introduction by the great showman and scam artist P. T. Barnum.

Barnum began his entertainment career with a variety troupe, Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater. He then bought a museum, where he promoted numerous famous hoaxes and curiosities to wow crowds. His first great hoax and one of the most famous was the Fiji mermaid.

Mermaids had been presented at shows for centuries, usually dugongs or people afflicted with the rare deformity Sirenomelia which fuses the legs together in the appearance of a mermaid’s tail.

Barnum’s mermaid astonished people are gained a wide following, with many other curiosity collectors and showman attaining one for their collections, including Robert Ripley.

Barnum went on to meet Queen Victoria, and numerous other members of royalty across Europe, showing them his curiosities and marvels. He created a great empire of museums and shows across America, and later went into politics.

It is thought that the Fiji mermaid is in fact something created in Japanese folklore, the Ningyo, or Human Fish. Described as a creature with a monkey’s mouth, small fish teeth and shining golden scales, representations were created by Japanese fisherman stitching the two parts of each creature together for use in religious ceremonies.

It is probably one of these that found its way into Barnum’s hands, and began the cult of creating them in America and Europe. The example available at Duke’s Auction is doubtless one of these copycat mermaids. It is expected to fetch £500-£1,000 at the December 5th-7th sale.

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