Buy A Fetus, Meteorite Or Half A Dolphin's Head At The Oddest Auction In Paris

Keeping up a tradition that dates back more than five centuries, some contemporary collectors continue to assemble "curiosity cabinets," privately-owned assortments of skulls, stuffed animals, preserved octopi and other natural odds and

Cabinets of curiosities have existed since the 16th century (Daderot)
Cabinets of curiosities have existed since the 16th century (Daderot)
Louise Thomas

PARIS – Under the empty gaze of a stuffed owl, a ferret skeleton stretches its bleached vertebrae next to a sheep fetus. This isn't some 19th century sorcerer's den but rather the cabinet of curiosities of a 21st century collector.

"People began putting together natural history collections in the 16th century," says expert Michael Combrexelle. "The goal was to gather at home a sample of living creatures. Today, next to the traditional stuffed animals, ivory and skeletons, you can also find scientific instruments and minerals."

Though the early amateurs kept their treasures in large pieces of furniture with drawers called cabinets, modern collectors tend to have their items out on display, using things like stuffed birds and skulls as part of their home decoration.

Pierre Bazaigues, a specialized shop owner at the Saint-Ouen flea market in the north of Paris, has gotten used to lighting or presentation requests from buyers. "They're looking for strong pieces that catch the eye. Complex scientific instruments for example, or old globes."

Collectors are particularly fascinated by anything stored in formaldehyde. Some species cannot be stuffed – like octopi, squid or fetuses – and are kept in jars. "There has been a recent fad for anything that comes from the sea, like corals or rare shells of a certain size," says Combrexelle.

The cabinet of curiosities doesn't follow any rules. You can collect anything and the price range allows everyone to indulge. During the Feb. 6 auction held at Drouot in Paris by Artcurial, a stuffed weasel sold for 150 euros, a meteorite for 500 euros and a psittacosaurus dinosaur skeleton for 8,758 euros. Half a dolphin's head in a jar, which has an estimated value of between 800 to 900 euros, did not find a buyer.

Prized vanitas

In these types of auctions, many pieces come with legal documents. Today, some species are protected by national or international laws, making it necessary for buyers to acquire them with certificates proving their traceability and the fact that they were taken from nature prior the implementation of these restrictions.

But the real stars of these cabinets of curiosities, the 16th and 17th century vanitas, don't need these documents. They're worth tens of thousands of euros. Whether they're in a painting or a composition, they symbolize the meaninglessness of earthly life. Most include a human skull, a sort of memento mori (Latin for "remember you will die") for future generations. A morbid thought that is very popular these days, especially with contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Daderot

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