The Mystery of Sven Hedin

Who was Sven Hedin? A Swedish explorer and geographer known for his expeditions to Central Asia, Dr. Sven Hedin created detailed maps in areas including Tibet, Turkestan, and northwest China. He is probably best known for his rediscovery of the buried Silk Road settlement of Khotan in 1896.

By 1910, Hedin had made acquaintance with fellow Swede Carl Milles and they became lifelong friends. Milles, who always admired Hedin, created a sculpture in 1932 to honor his friend.

“I made this at Cranbrook. For a long time I had wished to make a monument for him, and started it here. When Sven came to see it, he brought some other gentlemen with him. After looking at it he said ‘But Carl, this is wrong. I never look at the sextant when I am on the camel. I always get down from the camel, for the camel moves.’ Milles replied ‘But my dear friend. Do you think all skippers jump in the blue sea when they want to look at a sextant, just because the ship moves?'”

From 1927-1935, Hedin organized the Sino-Swedish Expedition (watch the video) during which he investigated the archaeological, geographical, and topographic features in Inner Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and Xinjiang, China. He spent the remainder of his life occupied with a publication dedicated to his findings.

From the Carl Milles Papers, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Hedin – the sculpture, not the man – made another exploration – this time from the grounds of Cranbrook to Hazel Park, Michigan. In August 1945, the 500 pound bronze sculpture of Hedin disappeared from its pedestal at Cranbrook Institute of Science. Shortly afterwards, a janitor at Hazel Park High School discovered the sculpture embedded in cement and perched upon a large rock in front of the school! School officials did not know the sculpture had come from Cranbrook so two weeks after reporting it to the police, Hedin was chipped out of the cement and stored in the basement of the school. School Superintendent John Erickson commented “those culprits did a real job of cementing it to the rock. Our janitor had to work hard to free it.”

Fast forward to December 1946 when Alton Sheldon, a salesman of janitor supplies, overheard men at Cranbrook talking about the wayward sculpture. Sheldon told them he had seen the statue in the Hazel Park High School basement, and that Cranbrook had better hurry down to get it before the school sold “Hedin and his camel for junk!”

Needless to say, Hedin returned to Cranbrook, a little worse for wear – quite scratched and missing his telescope. The sculpture was ultimately shipped to Sweden for restoration. Upon its return, noted explorer Sven Hedin was once again mounted on his pedestal where he remains today.

– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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