Museum Mystery: The Case of the Missing Head

Story posted September 12, 2008

carved head

Few people relish a good mystery more than museum professionals. Art works with unsolved origins or hidden connections, legendary lost treasures, these are the stuff of dreams - or at least careers.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art's newest exhibition, "James Bowdoin III: Pursuing Style in the Age of Independence," contains just such a mystery: The Case of the Missing Head.

museum cabinet
The air pump, built by the Reverend John Prince, was used by Bowdoin's first students to study gasses.

Among the treasured objects in the exhibition, which includes pieces from the collection of 18th century Bowdoin benefactor James Bowdoin III, is a rare, early American scientific instrument. It is an air pump, housed in a beautifully carved cabinet, which was built by leading maker the Reverend John Prince. It was used by Bowdoin's first students to study the properties of gasses and liquids.

"The conceit of the casework was to create a temple of learning," says Bowdoin College Museum of Art Director Katy Kline. "It is an outstanding example of an 18th century form that you don't see very often—a superlative piece of early American furniture containing what was at the time a revolutionary scientific device that measured vacuums."

Through an early, engraved illustration of it, College officials knew the cabinet was once "crowned" with a finely carved finial, or head. At some point, however, head went missing.

The headless cabinet was in storage at the College until the 1950s, when it was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington.

The legend of the missing head continued, however.

In 2005, staff at the Museum of Art received an unusual phone call. A Bowdoin alumnus, John Goldthwait '63, was inquiring about an object discovered in the small, but interesting, collection of the Hanover Massachusetts Historical Society, where he was a board member.

museum carved head
The carved head is a fine example of 18th century American artistry.

An antiques expert had recently surveyed the society's collection and uncovered a small, finely carved 18th century portrait head. Their records showed that the head, carver unknown, had come into the Society's possession in the 1920s, through the descendants of an Albert Curtis, Bowdoin Class of 1878, who had been a superintendent of schools in Hanover.

As they turned it over, Goldthwait just happened to catch the faint pencil outline of a familiar word scrawled into the back of the bust: Bowdoin. On a hunch, he called his alma mater to inquire if there had been report of anyone losing their head.

As word of the phone call trickled down to Laura Fecych Sprague, the Museum's consulting decorative arts curator, she gave out a shout: "The air pump!" The chase was on.

A volley of phone calls and a few years later, Goldthwait took head in hand himself to the Smithsonian Institution to investigate the mystery further. To the delight of all, the head fit perfectly on the peg atop the cabinet, nested between two graceful, flourishing scrolls.

Eventually the cabinet made its way from Washington back to Bowdoin, as did the head, which will be purchased by the College.

The reunion of finial and cabinet took place in the Museum's new arts storage area in anticipation of the James Bowdoin III exhibition. "It was lovely," recalls Kline. "I believe it was a furniture expert and conservator from Boston who was on site to evaluate the piece who actually placed the head on top. Everyone went, 'Oh wow!' It's just a basic human instinct to want to reunite things."

James Bowdoin exhibition
The cabinet is part of a tableau that reimagines the interior of James Bowdoin III's study complete with the Bowdoin family portraits.

For the next year, the cabinet will be on view as part of a tableau of furnishings and objects from the period, including a telescope and velvet suit coat actually worn by Bowdoin.

While some of the mystery has been solved, several important questions persist. The subject of the carved head is believed by some to be that of John Locke, the great English philosopher who inspired America's revolutionary generation, though other identities have been suggested. The identity of the carver, however, continues to be a mystery. It is one that is likely to generate much scholarly debate, says Kline.

"There are not a lot of records from 18th century American craftsmen and artists, so everything involves a scholarly sleuth," she says. "The prevailing opinion is that it was done by Simeon Skillin, an important early carver in the Boston area, but some scholars who have looked at similar carvings have different theories."

The most tantalizing mystery of all may never be solved: Who exactly took the head in the first place?

"Well," says Kline, grinning. "There are theories about that as well. If you ask me, it has all the markings of a student prank. Someone, possibly in the late 19th century, probably made off with the head. But," she adds, "we may never know."


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