Abigail Rowe already had a couch, a hand-me-down from her ex-boyfriend’s brother. Like most of her furniture, it was free and utilitarian, a place holder for a more stylish piece that she would buy someday.
But someday arrived sooner than she expected. In 2018, Ms. Rowe was browsing the “free stuff” section on Craigslist when she saw the perfect couch: a bulging pink love seat shaped like a pig.
The upholstery was shiny, almost slick, as if the pig would gently rebuff any attempt to sit on it. Its eyes were vacant and slightly downcast. Its tail, a bit of unraveled yarn jutting from its hindquarters, looked like an afterthought compared to its carefully carved hooves.
“The pig is expressive and sort of downtrodden,” Ms. Rowe, 25, said. “It looks inviting.”
The person who posted the listing for the couch claimed to be a furniture artist named Andrew who was clearing out space in his studio. The ad said he would give the pig couch away, to anyone who could explain in detail what it meant to them.
Ms. Rowe replied to the post with a poem. When Andrew didn’t immediately respond, she began to doubt his intentions. A reverse image search showed that her fears were founded: Here was an ad from 2016 that claimed the couch was available in Nashville; there was another suggesting the pig couch could be picked up in Boca Raton, Fla.
Finally Andrew texted back, claiming he had been set up. A woman he’d met on OkCupid posted the ad and included his phone number after becoming angry when she learned that Andrew wasn’t vegan, he claimed in messages to Ms. Rowe that were viewed by The New York Times.
Ms. Rowe had fallen for a recurring Craigslist scam. For at least five years, people have used the site to claim that they are selling or giving away this particular pig couch, according to old listings unearthed by Ms. Rowe. It’s unclear if any of the posters have profited from the venture, or if they are simply engaged in a lighthearted piece of performance art. (Some of the ads were posted on April Fools’ Day.)
On Tuesday, the pig couch re-emerged, this time in New York City. “Unique Pig Couch,” the Craigslist post read. “Selling it for $250 even though my boyfriend and I bought it for over 11k and it’s in pristine condition. Need someone to pick it up ASAP as my new boyfriend hates it and sadly this is non-negotiable for him.”
The person behind the New York listing, Marisol Martinez, has a history of benevolent trolling on Craigslist.
In 2011 or 2012 — Ms. Martinez couldn’t remember — she got frustrated by her commute from Manhattan to Brooklyn and posted an ad soliciting someone to ferry her across the East River in a boat. She would not stick to a set schedule, she said in the ad, and the rides had to be free. Certain conversation topics would be off limits. Some people responded angrily, calling her arrogant. Others wrote her poetry. Some asked if she would chip in for gas.
“It proves the absurdity of a city that has so many weird people in it,” Ms. Martinez, 31, said. “It was a good start to understanding you can ask for things and get them in the city. And also, people will harass you.”
She moved on to other lighthearted posts. In one, she posed as a snail who had upgraded to a larger shell and sought to rent the old one. (“It’s perfect for the adolescent gastropod looking to expand his/her living space while avoiding predators. You’ll love the rare left-handed spiraling, steep aperture, and funky asymmetrical whorls.”) In another, she advertised her services as a “fragmented consciousness technician,” offering to repair people’s broken brains.
“I think I’m, in some definitions, a scammer,” Ms. Martinez said. “I was posting something that wasn’t true.”
She stumbled upon the pig couch while helping a friend search for a statement couch online and was immediately drawn to its “unsettling texture” and melancholic face. “I think a couch with a face is probably, from a biological standpoint, something we’re more likely to look at,” Ms. Martinez said.
By posting the fake ad, she wasn’t trying to steal anyone’s cash. Instead, she hoped to lift the spirits of her fellow New Yorkers during the seething collective nightmare of 2020.
“I thought that I would create a semi-believable but share-worthy or interest-worthy post so that people would be delighted by the weirdness of the city,” Ms. Martinez said. “I definitely don’t want to take anyone’s money or waste someone’s time who’s out here trying to buy a couch.”
Her post caught the eye of Ms. Rowe, who has made a hobby of cataloging the pig posts. It also got the attention of the creator of the pig couch itself — Pavia Burroughs, a 31-year-old fiber artist from Philadelphia.
First of all, Ms. Burroughs would like the world to know that it’s a chair, not a couch.
His name is “Hillhock,” a portmanteau of “hillock,” a small knoll on which to sit, and “ham hock,” a cut of pork. He is hand-stitched from velvet and satin and stuffed with foam, making him surprisingly lightweight despite his bulk.
He was originally part of a living room set — including a rug, a side table and a lamp — that Ms. Burroughs presented as part of her sculpture thesis in 2011. The rug, fashioned out of paper, was meant to look like dirt, and there were paper flowers, myrtle and bloodroot growing in it and climbing up onto Hillhock. The side table had a fiber root structure pouring out of one side. The lamp was a normal lamp.
Ms. Burroughs was inspired by an image in “Masquerade,” a picture book by Kit Williams that she pored over as a child. One page depicts an older man sitting atop a pig, playing a fiddle as the pig sheds tears from one of its eyes.
Ms. Burroughs exhibited the chair, then tried to sell it. She didn’t get many takers, so she lowered the price. Several furniture blogs posted pictures of her work.
“It weirdly had a first life of going viral with blogs laughing at it,” she said. “When I finally sold it, it went into this weird virality of people pretending to sell it.”
The last public listing for Hillhock priced him at $950, but Ms. Burroughs said she recalls being bartered down to about $500. The buyer’s name was Matt, or Mike, by her memory, and he seemed like a businessman. He drove from Maryland to pick up the chair, which she had kept in her room and used as a repository for dirty laundry.
Nearly a decade later, Ms. Burroughs is still making art. It can be somewhat frustrating, but mostly funny, that such an old piece has become her most famous work.
“The pig couch now belongs to the internet. It’s bigger than me, I have no ownership,” Ms. Burroughs said. “Were any of the Craigslist posts real? Is it actually traveling around the country?”
Hillhock, it turns out, is still in Maryland. The buyer, a cybersecurity executive named Martin Roesch, drove the pig couch straight from Philadelphia to the offices of his start-up, Sourcefire. Mr. Roesch’s company made software called Snort, which sniffed at packets of internet traffic to detect threats, and its mascot was a pig.
“This thing was supercool, and I was like, ‘Oh God, I have to have it,’” Mr. Roesch said. “It does have this kind of forlorn look on its face, I think due to its eyes. I think it’s cute more than sad.” When he installed the chair in his office, his employees were rapt.
In 2013, Sourcefire was acquired by Cisco, and Hillhock moved with the company to the Cisco office in Maryland, where the chair ended up in a meeting room, Mr. Roesch said. “I think it became more of a conversation piece at that point, although I did see people sitting on it from time to time,” he said.
Mr. Roesch left Cisco last year, and said the piece remains “on loan” to his former employer. Since its most recent turn as a viral sensation, Mr. Roesch has received several offers to buy the couch. He is considering them.