A family heirloom, disguised in pink

I was sad to read awhile back that the pink flamingo lawn ornament may be facing extinction. Given the life span of molded resin, it's hard to imagine that this could ever really happen. Still, since it's difficult to predict what future generations will deem the "hot collectible," perhaps a hundred years from now the pink flamingo may be a sought-after find.

Coming across one in pristine condition might be like finding a coveted baseball card or a signed, rare first edition of a famous book.

Occasionally, someone might bring a pink flamingo to the still ever-popular PBS television program "Antiques Roadshow" for an appraisal, which could go something like this: "It's hard to believe now," the folk-art expert would begin, "but because of a boom of interest in Florida and things Floridian during the 1950s, these pink flamingos could be seen in many yards across the United States, sometimes in multiples, circling a painted tractor tire planted with petunias.

"What you have here is a pair of molded-resin pink flamingos, nicknamed Phoenicopteris ruber plasticus by its creator, Don Featherstone, whose signature is right here under the tails.

"Only the ones designed in 1957 by Featherstone and that bear his signature are considered authentic. Yours are in pristine condition and in the original box – it's amazing how the neon color hasn't faded. These could have been some of the first ones off the assembly line. How did you come to have them?"

With trepidation, the owner would relate his story: "Well, a Mr. Johnson of Chelsea, Mass., was given these as a Christmas gift – I have the Christmas card right here signed by his nephew:

Dear Uncle,
Here's a gift for all seasons – may these pink flamingos bring you happiness and grace your yard for many years.
Lovingly,
Henry
Christmas, 1957

"Apparently, Mr. Johnson failed to appreciate their subtle beauty, so they were thrown into the trash bin with the wrappings and card intact. We did some research on Mr. Johnson, who happened to be a prominent figure at the time, and we were able to locate one of his diary entries dated Dec. 26, 1957:

" 'Received plastic bird from dimwitted nephew – blithering idiot.'

"A bin diver (someone who used to scavenge for 'treasure' in trash bins) came along and retrieved the box (with card) and eventually put it in a Yankee swap the following year," the owner continued.

"Yankee swaps were a popular practice in New England – people would pull down from their attics some object they didn't want (maybe a gift from Aunt Nellie, who had knitted a sweater with too many arms or a resin plaque with a mounted fish that sang). These were wrapped and swapped at parties.

"Well, this is how my great-grandmother got these flamingos, and they've been in our family ever since. I remember when I was a kid seeing them at my grandmother's house. She knew I liked them, so eventually they were handed down to me," the owner would relate.

"Well, this is quite a find," the folk-art expert would say, "complete with provenance. But we also consulted with one of the furniture experts here, and here's what he said:

" 'This is a marvelous find. The late 20th-century scholar of pop culture, Robert Thompson, once referred to the plastic pink flamingo as 'one of the pillars of cheesy campiness in the American pantheon' – but many devotees enjoyed their whimsy.

"Notice the streamlined curve," he would say, "and, especially, the construction of the legs – form definitely following function – and the pure lines of the inverted V – no excessive ornamentation, a real classic.' "

Then the folk-art expert would ask, "Do you have any idea of the value of this pair of pink flamingos?"

"Not really," the owner would sheepishly reply.

"Well," the expert would reply, "I saw a pair recently that wasn't in as good condition as yours, and without the original box, and it went for $500. What you have here is in perfect condition, in its original box, with provenance and an interesting story. I've never come across such a complete package in such good condition, and I wouldn't be surprised that at auction you could get $1,000 to $1,200."

The owner would gasp and ask, "Really? You're putting me on – I had no idea. Well, that's nice to know, but we'll hold on to them. They're a real treasure and part of our family history – something we can pass down to our children."

So think twice before you pack your flamingos off to a Yankee swap – today's tacky kitsch may be tomorrow's heirloom.

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