LAND O'LAKES — Steve and Jay Richardson were known for buying weird things. Over the years, the couple have moved toward dealing in gold, silver and collectibles, but remnants of stranger times remain at Famous Treasures, an eclectic little shop on U.S. 41.
Cannons sit on the lawn amid BP and Subway signs. A dingy Bill Clinton mannequin tells customers the shop is open with a sign around his neck. Wax figures of Julia Roberts, Whoopi Goldberg, Harrison Ford and Pulp Fiction-era John Travolta stand in the labyrinthine store filled to bursting with coins, beer steins, books, movie props, snow globes, memorabilia, art and jewelry.
But one of Famous Treasures' strangest items is unidentifiable.
The hulking figure sits in an outdoor shed, shielded by a garage door. The Richardsons call it "that weird thing in the back," or even just "the thing." For 10 of the shop's 13 years, the nearly 7-foot-tall wooden statue has been a mystery.
The Richardsons snapped it up for $2,500 when a Kansas City auctioneer called them and said he had a "weird thing." The previous owners had purchased it from a shipping auction. No one knew what it was.
The sculpture is of a kneeling creature, with a man's body and the horned head of a calf licking its lips. The body is adorned with ornate jewelry and decorations. One hand holds a sickle, while the other holds what may be a small shield or incense burner.
"Who would ever make it and for what reason?" Steve wonders. "I'm afraid to go back there in the dark. For all I know, it gets off its perch and does something."
Someone has always been able to identify the other curious items in the shop. Not so with "the thing." The Richardsons have researched many suggestions about what it could be. Nothing they've found looks like this.
A local TV reporter visited in July and posted a photo of the statue on Facebook to see if anyone could figure it out. More than 40 people chimed in: It's a Minotaur, it's one commenter's angry ex, it's Molech, a Middle Eastern deity who required child sacrifices, mentioned in the Old Testament.
But none of those figures looks quite right.
E. Christian Wells, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, offered his thoughts.
"Wow!" Wells exclaimed in an email. "This is something I've never seen."
Wells said the figure was certainly not from the Americas. Its origin is the Old World — Asia, Africa and Europe.
"When I first saw the photo, I thought of Ganesha from South Asia, India and thereabouts. But it's not Ganesha, a Hindu god," Wells said, referencing the deity with an elephant's head. "It's quite impressive and I would say that it's South or Southeast Asian — possibly a conglomerate of multiple south Asian deities, especially because of the details on the costume."
Mark Lulek, academic program chairman for humanities and fine arts at St. Petersburg College, also ventured a guess.
"I'm dead sure this is Indian, rather than Chinese or Japanese," Lulek said.
The treatment of the body points to "mathura," a period of Indian sculpture.
"It's that soft kind of body and that stomach treatment. All the ornamentation on the statue, like the necklaces and the armbands look distinctly Indian to me," he said.
Hindu gods often are depicted with multiple arms, with each representing a different function or characteristic. The statue in question has only two arms.
"It's going to be like a guardian figure or a demigod or one of the millions of smaller gods that inhabit Hinduism," he said, noting that there are 350 million gods in the religion.
As to what time period the statue hails from, that may be unknowable. It could be traditional or contemporary.
"Hindu mythology is still a living mythology," Lulek said. "They're still elaborating on it and they're still making up stories about their gods."
Upon further research, Lulek found an image online titled "statue of an Indian bull-headed god." It looks more like the mystery statue than any others. But the information surrounding the image is scarce. One notation mentioned "Nandi," a cow associated with the Hindu god Shiva.
Nandi is most commonly referred to as Shiva's guard or follower. But there are some accounts of Nandi taking the figure of a bull-faced dwarf, or being represented as anthropomorphic, meaning it has human characteristics. Those depictions may either be called Nandi or Nandikeshvara.
Lulek entertains the possibility that the mystery statue could be a loose interpretation of an anthropomorphic Nandi.
"It's a possibility, but not a one-to-one correspondence. Perhaps a local interpretation? That's certainly feasible," he said.
Another clue comes from across the ocean. The website for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London features an image of Nandikeshvara in its catalog. The painting from Trichinopoly, India, titled Nandikeshvara, the Anthropomorphic Form of Nandi and Attendant of Shiva, is believed to be from the 1820s. The figure is not an exact copy of the mystery statue, but does feature some similarities: the head of a cow and the body of a man, along with jewelry and similar vestments. But the figure features four arms rather than two, and its hands hold a drum and an antelope, not an ax and shield.
Gil Ben-Herut, assistant professor of South Asian religions at USF, says he has never seen anything similar to the Richardsons' statue in his studies of India.
"It is possible that this is a representation of Nandi, (Shiva's) gatekeeper," Ben-Herut said. "However, I never read about or saw an image in which Nandi holds a sickle in his hand. Also, I am not familiar with the specific aesthetics of this statue, especially with the ornamentation around his arms and legs."
The mystery of the bovine peculiarity may never fully be solved, but it is available for purchase. For now, "the thing" sits in the darkness of the storage shed, waiting to meet someone with $2,500 and soft spot for mystery.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Samantha Fuchs can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.