Thursday, January 14, 2010


Like the scapegoat, the figurehead has become a metaphor, but the literal definition is a wooden decoration attached to the prow of a ship. These carvings were often of women or animals and were meant to represent a particular ship to a non-literate public. They were in use from the 16th to 19th c., generally decreasing in size as time went on, but they are sometimes featured on newer vessels, such as Royal Spanish Navy's 1927 schooner Juan Sebastián de Elcano (for a close-up, scroll down here) and the Argentine Navy's 1956 tall ship ARA Libertad (for a close-up, scroll down here). They can also be seen on historic reconstructions, like the HMS Bounty II (2nd photo). Antique figureheads are now collectors items and those with a good provenance can fetch well over $100,000. This one sold for $270,000. A dealer sold the figurehead in the 3rd photo for an undisclosed sum. It once graced the prow of the Canadian barque Edinburgh, which was launched in 1883 and foundered in 1909. It is 73" tall, weighs 400lbs., and has 90% of its original paint. The figurehead depicted here sold for $183,000 after it had been deaccessioned by the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. There are collections of figureheads at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Adelaide, the National Maritime Museum in London, and in the U.S. at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut. German, Belgian, and Dutch sailors believed that water fairies dwelt within the figurehead, guarding the ship and guiding their souls if it sank.

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