An antique collector thought he had stumbled on the discovery of a lifetime when he found the name of a character from the Harry Potter series on a 130-year old whale tusk. But he was even more surprised when, rather than admitting that the unusual artefact had provided the inspiration for her creation Cornelius Fudge, JK Rowling denied all knowledge of it.
John Jeffries from Cornwall bought the huge tusk – which came from a narwhal, an Arctic species dubbed the “unicorn of the deep” – more than four decades ago. It had been presented to a sailor called Cornelius Fudge in 1881.
This, Mr Jeffries realised, was also the name Ms Rowling gave to the Minister for Magic, head of the governing body of the British wizarding world, in the Harry Potter books. He was played by Robert Hardy in the films of the series.
The 64-year-old Mr Jeffries wrote to Ms Rowling asking whether the sailor had been the inspiration for the Minister for Magic’s name. He wondered if she had seen the tusk or the inscription in a history book, adding that it seemed “a bit of a coincidence”.
She replied in a hand-written note: “How utterly extraordinary! No I made up the name Cornelius – or at least I thought I did.” She continued: “I had never come across it and did not know of the existence of a naval CF. Thank you for a most interesting addition to the postbag.”
Mr Jeffries said: “In a way, it’s quite nice that we’re still in the dark about its ultimate origins. This way the tusk retains its mystery.”
The artefact sold at auction last month for £36,000 to what is believed to be an American maritime museum. Mr Jeffries said he would donate £900 to a charity for multiple sclerosis, the illness Rowling’s mother died of at the age of 45.
“I feel that the books were part of the reason the tusk sold for so much, and that it was only fair some of the proceeds went to her charity,” he said.
It has a plaque at the bottom that reads: “Presented to Cornelius Fudge. Master at Arms. By his mess mates as a mark of respect and esteem on his leaving HMS London at Zanzibar to retire from the service. September 1881.”
Mr Jeffries bought the 2.5m (8ft 2in) ivory item from a seller in the New Forest for “a couple of thousand pounds” when he was 21.
He had said before receiving the letter: “Narwhals used to be seen as mythical creatures until they were discovered by Vikings. It ties in well with the Harry Potter magical theme, so there’s a chance the two names could be linked if JK Rowling knew about the tusk, and who it was gifted to.”
In a poll to find the most popular character in the series, Cornelius Fudge came 40th in 2011.
On Thursday, Ms Rowling was snubbed in a competition to find Scotland’s best-loved book from the past 50 years. The Scottish Book Trust compiled a longlist of 50 novels by Scottish authors, those who live in Scotland or for books that were written in the country.
Yet literary critic Stuart Kelly, who oversaw the list, ruled out the Edinburgh-based Ms Rowling because the Harry Potter series was not for adults, while there were “50 better books” than The Casual Vacancy, which was written for grown-ups.
Those in competition include Irvine Welsh, Val McDermid and Iain Banks, with voting open to the public until 18 November.