The best example of a ningyo with good provenance is the specimen collected by Jan Cock Blomhoff, the director of the Dutch trading colony Dejima - an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki built as the only point of contact between Japan and the outside world (and even then only with Chinese and Dutch traders) during the period of isolationist policy called sakoku.
Blomhoff’s specimen was purchased from a misemono carnival at some point between 1817 and 1824 and now resides at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. A more famous (or perhaps infamous) example of a ningyo type mermaid was the ‘Feejee Mermaid’, the specimen that has since lent its name to all manufactured mermaids, which was displayed by showman P.T. Barnum from the 1840s to the 1880s.
Before the Feejee Mermaid ever found its way to Barnum it was the property of Samuel Barrett Eades, who bought it in Jakarta in 1822 from some Dutch hucksters who acquired it in Japan. They convinced the gullible Eades that it was a real mermaid and sold it to him for a huge amount of money. When Eades brought the specimen to England it was studied by Mr William Clift of the Royal College of Surgeons, who declared it to be constructed from a salmon attached to the torso and cranium of an orangutan with the mandible of a baboon. Here we see the origins of the ‘Monkey-fish’ identification, which seems to have persisted for all such specimens.
For more on the Feejee Mermaid I strongly recommend Jan Bondeson’s excellent book The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History.
by Paolo Viscardi, Deputy Keeper of Natural History