Salvador Dalí Demanded An Elephant As Payment ... And Got It
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Seven swans a-swimming ...
We've been talking about the 12 Days of Christmas, and its series of gifts that would mostly be worthless at best or expensive burdens at worst. People often call that sort of gift a white elephant. That name goes back to Southeast Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Actual white elephants were considered sacred, and the king back then might give you one as an extravagant present. You'd then own something theoretically very valuable, but you couldn't legally use it as a beast of burden, you had no way of selling it, and feeding it cost so much that it would probably ruin you.
So today, we have white elephant gift exchanges of dumb presents or white elephant sales of useless products. In The Simpsons, Bart was allowed to choose either a $10,000 prize or an elephant, and the radio show was baffled when he chose the elephant. And one time (in real life), Salvador Dalí demanded an elephant as payment for an art job.
The year was 1968. Air travel was more of a luxury than it is today, and Air India wanted Dalí to design for them a souvenir they could mass produce and give to travelers. Dalí would end up taking the job and making an ashtray. Hold it one way, and it looked like a series of swans a-swimming. Flip it upside down, and it looked like a bunch of elephant heads. He'd pulled this same trick with an earlier painting, Swans Reflecting Elephants.
Air India's European Regional Director, Nari Dastur, met Dalí in Spain to hire him. He asked him how much the job would cost, and Dalí replied that he wanted "a live baby elephant from India." Dastur figured he was trolling. Dalí said he wasn't (which does not actually reduce the chance that he was indeed trolling).
Dastur assigned the task of finding an elephant to the company's deputy commercial director, Uttara Parikh. The first zoo she checked said they didn't have any handy, but the second one did, so Dastur bought it, put it on a plane, and flew it to Spain.
The town of Cadaqués threw a three-day festival to celebrate the elephant changing hands. Dalí said he planned to cross the Alps, riding the elephant like Hannibal, but that was just Dalí being purposely weird. He had no way to keep the elephant himself, so he donated Noi the elephant to the Barcelona Zoo, and it moved from there to the zoo in Valencia, where it entertained visitors for the next 50 years.
Top image: Ebay, Salvador Dalí