Friday, 11 May 2012

The two-faced Inuit statue

“It’s made of whale bone,” I was told, “Carved from vertebrae”.

Inuit drummer
The Inuit whalebone statue - drummer side
At first glance the 14-inch figure looks quite sombre: a drummer, cross-legged and hunched inside the warmth of a thick coat. The lines are smooth, but the surface of the bone is porous, giving it a cold feel to touch. Why was it carved? A toy passed between giggling children in neighbouring boats? A present? Maybe whilst you’re holding it wondering  if something with so much care poured into it could really be a trinket for tourists, you feel that the back of the statue is also carved, and spin it around: The statue  has two faces. A drummer and a dancer.

The faces themselves, along with the buttons on their coats and the drummer’s traditional qilaut drum are ivory – suggested to be from a Walrus tusk. But, wait a minute… ivory… whalebone… surely they’re protected materials? There are no descriptive markings on the statue – no “igloo tag” issued by the Canadian government, no Roman numeral or syllabics on the base. We’re told:

“the USA has a strict ban on imports of any type of whale bone unless there is a DNA test result which states the species of whale it came from.”

Inuit dancer
The Inuit whalebone statue - dancer side
So is the little statue illegal? Should it be destroyed? We’re told a lot of whalebone isn’t signed, so the only way to be sure is to find someone who recognises the statue.

A gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia told us the statue might be from the Ivujivik region, in the eastern Arctic. They have a contact in a western Arctic community of Inuvik, a town of 4,000 people which translates as “the place of man”.

“Pieces do move about, even up there,” the gallery said, but, “we have not had a lot of success in direct approaches to our Inuit contact, he never answers his email.”

Do you recognise the statue? Contact The Thing Detectives, or tweet to us @ThingDetectives.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Bagatelle Theory

Thing Detective Field Guide #1: Try to work out where 'the thing' might come to rest.

Most things bounce.
I don’t mean ‘when dropped from a great height’ but rather from one owner to the next. A comic printed in 1939 bounces from the press to the newsstand, then to the pocket of little Billy’s shorts in exchange for a nickel, then to a box under his bed and finally into an auction house in New York 75 years later. This is a real example and Billy’s comic, bought for 10 cents, finally sold for $523,000!

A bagatelle. A metal ball bounces between the pins.
It's a bit like pinball without the flippers.
The world of collecting things, finding things, rooting around and rummaging is quite logical. The item is either in the place you look, or it isn’t. The trick is to focus on the resting place – can you work it out from what you know?

Just as a metal ball bounces around the pins on a bagatelle in a predictable way and a river bend is the place to look for silt flecked with gold,  the passage of time often deposits comics or mahogany tables or tomato boxes in predictable places too.

Sebaskachu River in central Labrador.
Predictable silt deposits on the bends.
For the Magician’s postcard case this Bagatelle theory helped us a great deal:
There are so many ways that a flimsy piece of card could be lost or destroyed, we thought, that to make it to the present day would require safety...
Assume that a travelling magician doing a residency at a large theatre might leave some promotional material behind...
Assume that this was quite safe until the theatre closed down in the 1970s...
Where would the postcard bounce on to next after nearly 60 years in one place?
A local antiques shop!

So ask yourself “Where might my long-sought-after gold-plated wotsit end up?”

Do you know where it was made? Where it was sold? Where might it be stored? Just remember – it’s out there somewhere!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

They asked for what?! – The John Travolta mask

Cold cases; unusual items; and annoyingly incomplete stories.

#5 The John Travolta rubber mask

 John Travolta mask
Too life-like for some.
I think it looks more like nick-nack
from The man with the Golden Gun

“I am a semi-professional John Travolta impersonator,” began the email. I took my feet off the desk, sensing something wonderful was about to happen. "I would like you to find the item that would make my act complete - a rubber John Travolta mask."

We found the mask (pictured above), but hesitated - surely singing would be difficult? Was this John Travolta act simply a man strutting around the stage to 'Night Fever', or was he the real deal, prone to belting out 'Summer Lovin'" in a T-bird jacket etc.?

"That's good," came the reply, "but it looks a little too much like him. Do you have any others?"

The concept of a semi-pro John Travolta impersonator was interesting to say the least, but one that doesn't actually want to look like John Travolta? We had chills, and they were multiplyin'.

Have you ever seen a JT impersonator? Have you ever seen JT? Replies below, please.

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

They asked for what?! – A pistachio nut shelling machine

Cold cases; unusual items; and annoyingly incomplete stories.

#4 the pistachio nut shelling machine

Shelled pistachio nuts.
Delicious, but hidden.

“I am looking for a pistachio shell remover or the plan for one," wrote the owner of a small pistachio orchard in Austrailia, "NOT a pistachio de-huller that removes skins.”

We were later told by a man who knew his nuts that an "economical machine to shell small quantities (i.e., less than a few hundred tons per annum) of pistachio nuts" simply did not exist.

But how could he be so sure? we wondered.

"Do not take my word for this," he said, "you could also spend ten years of searching and visiting the pistachio countries of the world to reach the same conclusion."

It was another brief glimpse of a bigger story - of a man roaming the planet with a pocket full of dreams... and nuts.

Click here for some fun facts about pistachios (in China it is known as 'the happy nut').

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The tale of the Magician’s postcard

How do you catch a bullet between your teeth? Have you ever dined with a dog? How far would you go for fame?

Alexander Crystal Seer poster
Crystal balls, commonly used to
spy on Thing Detectives.
(pic credit: Vintage Ephemera)
He arrived out of the blue, spouting words like magic, bullets and cash. A distinct chill passed through the Thing Detectives office – it tugged at the hairs on the back of my neck. It felt like we were being watched, maybe through the business-end of a dusty crystal ball. 

“Magical memorabilia”, our new client said, white teeth glimmering (I’m guessing here, it was a phone call), “think you can manage that?”

He wanted Ephemera, which are paper collectibles to you and me- photos, posters and postcards of famous magicians from the early 1900s; The Great Lafayette, The Great Herrmann and Chung Ling Soo.

Had Mr. Lafayette, we wondered, opted for "The Great" after dismissing "the bloody brilliant" or "the ok, but you can sort of see the mirrors"?  Why had Mr. Soo not reckoned himself as highly as his contemporaries?

For anyone reading this who is turned a little cold by 'magic'- maybe you’re one of those "I don't care where the bunch of flowers came from, if you're a magician turn my house into a dinosaur" types? - I urge you to read on. Because delving deep into the history of conjuring we found the dedication and commitment shown by these early illusionists to be, quite literally, mind blowing.

The Great Lafayette (Siegmund Neuberger) and Beauty
The Great Lafayette (real name
Siegmund Neuberger) and
Beauty (real name unknown)
Chung Ling Soo was born an American called William Robinson in 1861. He shaved his head, grew a beard and changed his name at the age of 39 in order to advance his career prospects.

Mr. Robinson died on stage at the Wood Green Empire in London in 1918. The Great Lafayette also died on stage, during a fire at the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh. He was buried with his small dog, Beauty, whom he used to dine with.

Alexander 'The Great' Herrmann pioneered a technique for throwing cards long distances with a flick of the wrist, paving the way for the 'cards as weapons' martial art.

The thought that an Ace of Clubs might come whistling through the window towards my throat at the behest of some demonic cabal seemed somehow easier to believe than the fact our last case had been to source Bros’ first album.

Bros debut album - PUSH (1988)
Bros' debut album "push" (1988)
This should give Google something to think about.
The hunt begins...

We exhausted all internet-based avenues early on and not being likely to find such magical items in the classifieds, we tried to find a specialist - someone to share their wealth of knowledge with us.

In this case, The Magic Circle gave what background information they could and wished us well, although they couldn’t help, their hands were tied - slip knots, probably.
"William Ellsworth Robinson (the erstwhile Mr. Chung Ling Soo)" one friendly magician wrote, "managed to keep up the pretence of being Chinese in the public eye for his entire career, despite many of his fellow illusionists knowing the truth. He pretended to be incapable of speaking English, perhaps because his Brooklyn accent would blow his cover. Incredibly, a fellow illusionist "Ching Ling Foo", of actual Chinese descent, accused Chung of stealing his act. A contest was held to find the "greatest Chinese magician", from which Soo emerged victorious and Foo was branded an impostor." 
Magic circle logo
"Not apt to disclose secrets"
but jolly nice nevertheless.

It was then that we came up with what we now call The Bagatelle theory (explained in our next post, folks!). It boiled down to this: There were so many ways a hundred year old piece of card could be torn, or soaked, burnt, lost or simply and slowly perish. In order to make it to the present day it would have required safety...

We decided to search antiques shops near to the Wood Green empire, where Chung Ling Soo had met his sorry end in 1918.

The shop we found bulged over the pavement  with cobweb covered furniture, dusty vases, maps and bric-a-brac. The building itself, jutting out at strange angles in different shades of black and green, looked at once supernatural and against all rational laws of physics, resembling something akin to an Escher puzzle, haunted by a spirit that certainly wasn’t level. In short, it was the kind of building that one could absolutely imagine disappearing in a puff of smoke. 
The Wood Green empire
The wood green empire,
now a branch of the Halifax
building society.

Inside, weathered shelves held many strange and exotic things; tribal instruments, Japanese battle masks, a painting of a cow… and a postcard: part of a job-lot cleared from the Wood Green Empire in the 1970s. A postcard dated 1918, featuring the portrait and signature of a Chang Ling Soo (sic.) for sale for £800.

We expected, and secretly hoped, the proprietor of the shop to be an old, wizened gentleman, with an old, wizened beard and a penchant for talking in riddles. I was wrong, his name was Gary, and he had a story to tell:

“Chung Ling Soo’s most famous trick "The Living Target" involved him catchin’ a live bullet between his teeth. The trick being, right, 'e had a rigged gun, with a fake barrel and blank cartridge! It was aimed and shot at Soo, then he spat a previously palmed bullet onto a plate.

Chung Ling Soo, conjurer poster
Chung Ling Soo
Marvellous conjurer maybe,
but Chinese he was not.
But on the evening of the 23rd of March 1918, the trick went wrong and he was killed in full view of the audience on the stage at the Empire. Despite a jury's verdict of "accidental death" there was a rumour that it may have actually been suicide on account of Soo’s massive debts or even murder, as Soo's prop manager was doing the dirty with his wife.”

Gary paused.

“Go on, Gary,” I prompted.

“The postcard is a very rare thing indeed, being dated and signed one week before his death and illustrated with Soo holding the plate and bullet proudly above his head. It’s a piece of history, a priceless memento, and a testament to a true master of his art...

Having said that, fella, I could probably let it go for six-fifty?”

A signed Chung Ling Soo postcard
The Chung Ling Soo postcard, dated one
week after Soo's death.
Quite a haunting image, really.

Do you have anything to add to the mystery of Chung Ling Soo? Please post below.

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

They asked for what?! – Strange cases (III)

Cold cases; unusual items; and annoyingly incomplete stories.

#3 the medical etching

A medical drawing by Faustino Anderloni
A medical etching by Faustino Anderloni, 1813.
Nothing says "happy holidays" like an exposed Trachea.

 “I am looking for an antique medical etching... best would be anything to do with the chest or oesophagus or surgical in nature.”

This was by no means the strangest request we’ve had, but put together with the client’s parting words-

“Hurry, I need it by Christmas.”

-it certainly makes you wonder about that particular Christmas morning.

Still… it beats socks, I suppose.

What’s the strangest Christmas present you’ve ever searched for?

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Monday, 20 February 2012

They asked for what?! – Strange cases (II)

Cold cases; unusual items; and annoyingly incomplete stories.

#2 The kingfisher tie

a colourful and stylish kingfisher tie
A kingfisher tie, best worn with a blue shirt

“I am looking for a man's tie,” the lady wrote, “material irrelevant BUT it must have a picture of a Kingfisher [the bird] on it at the front!! AND in colour.”

We had to wonder... how many ties are decorated on the back? And how many with Kingfishers that aren't birds?

Do you own a bird-themed tie? Please post your photos below.

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

They asked for what?! – Strange cases (I)

Cold cases; unusual items; and annoyingly incomplete stories.

# 1. “A boat-shaped xylophone”

The Ranat Ek percussion instrument
The Ranat Ek, being played suspiciously.
We never did discover why someone from Bolton would want one of these. We found the Ranat Ek, but lost touch with the lady who - and I'm guessing here - is either very keen on boats or percussion.
Where is it now? If you've seen it please get in touch, Chris has a prize for you.

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The strange disappearance of Guernsey Tom

What is a chip basket? Is there life after hedge-veg? And who would christen a tomato?

The Guernsey Press, the leading newspaper of the second largest of the British Channel Islands set us a challenge the likes of which we’d never seen before: to reunite the island with an emblem of its past.

"It’s…well, it’s a basket,” I said to Chris, matter-of-fact-ly.

“A basket?” he sounded disappointed.

“Ah but the trick is, it’s not really a basket, it’s a more of a box…” I tossed him this to ramp up the excitement.

“And how is this box symbolic?”

“Well, let me tell you a little story.”

“Can it wait, John I’m…” said Chris, who secretly loves my stories.


Tom grew up in Guernsey. On 11th June 1955, with the sun ripening his skin for the last time, Tom was placed below-deck on a ferry to England. At Southampton, he would board a private train to an undisclosed location and from there it was anyone’s guess – a salad, a sandwich, maybe even a tapenade. Tom was a tomato, and he was not alone. That very same week, 793,966 baskets of Guernsey Toms made the channel crossing. At full-tilt in the 1960s, the island only 25 miles square was 7% under glass; 2500 growers were firing out tomatoes at a rate of 9 million baskets per year, each one hand-picked, cleaned and inevitably christened Tom.

Tomato Museum poster, Guernsey, Channel Islands
Guernsey Tom, apparently quite a bashful tomato.

To the islanders, Guernsey Tom, his baskets, and the prosperity they brought are a reminder of the grit and determination shown by those of a certain age; of a time when Guernsey (and Tom) had suffered a great deal. Each greenhouse full of baskets full of tomatoes could be thought of as a microcosm for post-war British pluck.

We’d been asked to find one such symbolic basket. How difficult could that be? Surely it was a simple matter of knocking on the nearest greenhouse door? Well, sadly no.

Tomato baskets in a 1930 tomato factory
Tomato baskets in their thousands, circa 1930. Now vanished.
Picture credit: Blue Diamond Co.

By the 1970s the tomato basket was finished, replaced with the bland austerity of the cardboard “Dutch tray”. The writing was on the wall for Guernsey Tom too, in blood-red, peppered with little yellow seeds: “The Dutch are coming”. Tomatoes could now be sourced more cheaply in Holland. The soil-steamers, packers, box-makers, train drivers, and tomato growers all shut-up shop. Guernsey Tom was relegated to hedge-veg.

Vegetables for sale at a stall in Guernsey
Hedge-veg. "...and no stealing."
Picture credit:

This was a singularly strange mystery for the Thing Detectives – millions of baskets documented, but we couldn’t find a single one. Where was Guernsey Tom? We found a clue in the original email from The Press.
“Latterly, these baskets were used to serve tea in, in cafes such as the one at Grand Roque”

Sherlock Holmes stamp, Alderney, Guernsey
Holmes and Watson, on the neighbouring island of Alderney
whilst we were hunting for Guernsey Tom.
Picture credit: Guernsey Post

We had out first clue, unfortunately the cafĂ© in question has long since closed. Instead we contacted The Guernsey Folk Museum (logical); the Guernsey Dairy (not so logical); and several social historians, including the prolific Peter Brehaut. Yet the basket remained out of our reach.
Then we had an idea: to get the word out to as many islanders as possible. Using the Guernsey Press would surely be cheating, a leafleting campaign time-consuming, and sky-writing slightly heavy handed. Instead we used a bit of lateral thinking - where, during the post-war years, would Guerns congregate, gossip, exchange tomato-growing tips?

"Good morning,” I said, hoping I was speaking to the lady from the Vale Parish Church, “I’ve heard that you might have a tomato basket?”

“Ooh yes, but we've always called them ‘chips’, dear.”

“May I ask if you still use your chip?

"Ooh yes, but not for Toms. Been a while since I used it for Toms. I use it for potatoes. But you’re welcome to it.”

A Guernsey tomato chip or basket
A Guernsey tomato chip (-board basket)
Picture credit: BBC
"That’s very kind of you, don’t you need it?”

"It’s lived a life with me, dear. Probably best to pass it on, ey?”


As you can probably tell, I'm quite fond of the island. Why not visit Guernsey yourself? (described wonderfully as "piece of British territory with a French zest"). Have you considered growing a Guernsey hierloom tomato? Many thanks to The Guernsey Press and Shaun Shackleton for their kind article about The Thing Detectives.

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The case of the time-travelling barber's chair

Can a barber's chair really travel through time? Do time machines really use 60W light bulbs? And what exactly is a "climax" chair?

Why start here? After all, this wasn’t our first case, or even our last. Why tell the tale of the time-travelling chair when the crucial ‘blog ice-breaker could easily have been the mystery of the magician’s postcard or the gold kettle caper or the debacle of the foot–operated, dog-grooming table? Well maybe because it highlights a recurring theme – that the story of the thing, in this case a mahogany barber’s chair, is usually far more intriguing than first appearances might suggest; or maybe it’s just because I had my hair cut this morning and my thoughts wandered. But isn’t that what blogs are for, hmm?
Several years ago a man from New York sent us an email in which he asked us to find an antique barber's chair. He didn’t introduce himself as a barber, or even a collector of chairs (they do exist). We didn’t give a second thought to why he might want one. The important fact was that he did and, at the time, we were glad of a new case.
A Eugene Berninghaus ‘Hercules’ model, circa 1900,” he wrote, “to be specific”.
an advert for the Hercules hydraulic barber chair
Orginal ad for Hercules barber chair, circa 1900,
goes up and down through the air not back and forth through time
(picture credit Harvey Mayo and Don Coleman)
We had to agree, that is pretty specific. But specifics… details… data are all very important to a Thing Detective. The difference between bluish-green and greenish-blue on a postage stamp or vase or feather boa may be slight by the eye but might triple in value by the wallet and make the thing a thousand-fold harder to find.

But where to look for our American’s chair? The trail led to antiques shops; markets; auction  houses offline; auction sites online; long-winded emails; expensive phone calls etc. etc. It took a month to track the Berninghaus chair down and, as luck would have it, we found a pair for sale at auction in Sacramento. Unusually for us the hunt was pretty straightforward. But there were certain facets of this tale that sent the hairs bristling on our necks; these came from the chair itself, or rather the men behind it.
Eugene Berninghaus was an interesting man. His ‘Hercules’ chair (not to be confused with his earlier 'Climax' chair, which required some extremely careful Googling) was unique at the turn of the 20th century as it could be hydraulically raised, reclined and revolved. A shrewd fellow, Berninghaus later patented the various bits of his revolutionary chair, and became the largest wholesaler (of anything!) in Ohio, going on to make his chairs and ‘other materials’ for the US army in World War I. There are few clues as to what these might have been- Eugene was an avid inventor, filing several further patents after the war. “Berninghaus professional furniture” was exported from “the tropics to the arctic circle”, and developed uses beyond the barbershop –The Berninghaus Ophthalmic Chair creates an atmosphere of up-to-dateness”, one ad reads (its debatable how much this would have soothed nervous eye patients… “AAGGGHH HE’S TOUCHING MY EYEB… oooh up and down? this is modern, I like this”). Eugene’s right-hand man, William Billhartz, described as a “consultant on optical instruments” at Berninghaus Co. went on to become a professor of optics and was described in 1911 as one of the leaders in American science.
Rod Taylor sitting in a Hercules barber's chair in The Time Machine movie
Rod Taylor sitting in a Hercules barber's chair in 'The Time Machine' (MGM, 1960)
With a very neat short back and sides.
(picture credit unknown)
So a very smart businessman made a very smart chair. But its use extended far beyond haircuts and eye examinations. At around the same time Bernighaus was designing his chair in Ohio USA, across the Atlantic in Woking England Herbert George “H.G.” Wells was writing a novel about the perils of time travel. Seventy years later, this book and that chair would be brought together, their fates entwined in the 1960 film The time machine. The reason- although we didn’t find this out until recently- that our American client wanted a Hercules chair, was to fuel his burning desire to build an exact, full-sized replica of a time machine. He takes up the story in his journal entries:

Rob Niosi's Time machine plans
A glimpse of Rob Niosi's plans
No sign of a flux capacitor.
(picture credit unknown)

“ I negotiated the price and the purchase was made. Eighty days later, the chair and mirror arrived at my home (see photo below)…I was thrilled to find it in better condition than I had imagined. After so much time and a series of disappointments, it ended well, with the acquisition of this beautiful antique chair and mirror…
The headrest is actually the footrest of the original barber chair. As George Pal (prop designer on the MGM film) did in 1959, I removed the original headrest and replaced it with the footrest…
The chair I have is mahogany, which is the species I prefer and the carvings are correct except the side rosettes are smooth instead of flowers. I considered carving the flowers into these rosettes myself…
I had done some of my own upholstery in the past; two vintage barber chairs to be exact. Simple stuff. Vinyl and foam. This chair was a challenge. Top quality mohair over dacron fiber and muslin…
No glove box in the Time Machine. Where do I pack a lunch or tidy wipes for those long trips? Where do I store spare parts such as light bulbs etc.?
I finished the wood of the chair with great care. Instead of using harsh chemical stripers, gently removed the old finish with a soft brush and acetone. No sanding was done. I let dark spots, scrapes and dings in the wood remain as a testament to its age and history.”
And what a testament.

Time-travelling barber's chair
Rob's chair on arrival day, with its first two time-travellers,
who were actually born in the 1820s.
(picture credit: Rob Niosi)

For more information on Rob Niosi’s time machine project visit his web site, or watch an interview with the man himself on YouTube. For even more information on The Time Machine visit Don Coleman's site.
If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.