Antique Taxidermy: Getting Your Fill

A pair of taxidermy unicorns, 20th century. Sold for £35,000 via Christie’s (5 March 2014).

Vintage and antique taxidermy can evoke many sensations, from the thrill of the hunt to the allure of the unique. An art form in itself, taxidermy also reflects the refinement of scientific study, both in the preservation of an animal and an accurate reformulation of that creature’s anatomy. Read on to take a closer look at the history of taxidermy and some of its most spectacular examples that have come to market, and better understand why vintage taxidermy continues to tantalize today’s collectors. 

History of Taxidermy

The first taxidermists appeared in nineteenth-century European studios. The rapid rise of the practice during that period was owed to a confluence of events across contemporary culture, including:

Growing Museum Collections

Following the creation of the first natural history museum in the second half of the seventeenth century, museums across the European continent were avidly working to build their collections. These showcases typically featured natural wonders including stuffed specimens of animals. Thanks to this new interest, professionals joined museum teams to work specifically on their preservation projects. Such was the case, for example, for Louis Dufresne, who was a curator/taxidermist for Paris’ Natural History Museum and was rumored to have been the first museum professional to use the word “taxidermy” (or rather taxidermie) in 1803.

Arrival of Exotic Species in Europe

The hide of a kangaroo first arrived on England’s shores in the 1770s; the next decade the remarkable platypus also arrived. These new and relatively unusual species caused excitement. They also increased interest in preserving creatures of all sizes for posterity, from the tiny chihuahua to the imposing polar bear. Adding fuel to the fire was the burgeoning practice of big game hunting expeditions that grew in popularity during the Victorian era and only amplified the bevy of species returning to Europe to be preserved for eternity.

New Preservation Techniques

Coinciding with this rising interest in all types of animalia was the development of reliable tanning techniques. Tanning a hide involved soaking the skins in various solutions to toughen the tissues into leather. Such an ability had far-reaching implications across industries, but they were particularly valuable techniques for better preserving animal hides for taxidermy. 

The Process of Taxidermy

A talent not for the squeamish, taxidermy typically follows the following steps: 

 1. Skinning or Fleshing

A taxidermist begins by skinning the deceased animal carefully.  Subsequently, the taxidermist works diligently to remove any fat deposits remaining on the inside of the flesh. With this tissue cleaned, the animal hide can be tanned for preservation and then either stitched flat – to make a skin rug or pelt – or attached to a form.

 2. Creating the form

Today, forms can be made from almost any material, from plastic resin and fiberglass to wrapped nylon twine, clay, plaster of paris – almost any material suitable for sculpting. The form should closely resemble the animal without its fur.

3. Wiring or Mounting

With the skin readied, taxidermists then can prepare the armature that will serve as the basis for their animal form. What’s essential here is securing the skin to a form and then filling that form so that the animal takes on a realistic appearance. In 19th-century taxidermy, this phase was rather unrefined, as skins were often attached to rudimentary forms and then stuffed with scraps of cloth or sawdust. Without the proper interior form to maintain the shape of the taxidermied animal, these early works often suffered disfigurement. As time progressed taxidermists developed more substantial interior manikins (a manikin is like a mannequin, but typically used for medical or surgical simulation) which are internal structures that give the taxidermied animal greater form. Today these taxidermists can order full-body manikins made from foam to streamline the process. 

4. Grooming or Staging

With the hide secured to its manikin, either by stitching or tacking, the taxidermied animal can now be considered a “mount” and often appears as either a full-body mount (showcasing the animal’s full body) or a shoulder mount (including only the head and neck of the animal). With their work almost complete, the taxidermist can then put the finishing touches on their work. Taxidermists might, for instance, secure the animal to a prop or, following in the footsteps of famed taxidermist, Walter Potter, set them within an entire tableau. This final phase can also include grooming or other upkeep – for example, brushing a coat of fur – so that it looks picture perfect.

Tips For Assessing Vintage Taxidermy

Despite the preservation techniques used in taxidermy, time can take its toll on these ambitious mounts. This is particularly the case if a taxidermied animal has experienced less-than-exceptional care. Here are some quick tips when assessing the state of vintage taxidermy:

1. Look for Loose Skin or Fur

It’s a major warning sign if parts of an antique taxidermy mount show sagging skin or are losing clumps of hair. Bubbles or gaps forming between the mount’s flesh and the interior armature might suggest a shoddy taxidermy job that did not adequately secure the skin. Meanwhile, clumps of falling fur can be a sign of moth or beetle infestation, which is a death knell for vintage taxidermy.

2. Stay Out of the Sunlight

Just as perilous as insects is sunlight, specifically ultraviolet light, which can fade or discolor fur over time.  

3. Always Inspect Antlers 

 You might have your eye on a taxidermied moose, but if a close inspection reveals cracks in its antlers, be cautious. Cracked antlers – and brittle fur – can sometimes indicate that the antique taxidermy was subjected to notable temperature fluctuations and thus might foreshadow more preservation issues around the corner.   

4. Seek Out Sealed Vitrines

Antique taxidermy preserved in a neatly sealed vitrine or display case has a higher likelihood of being in better condition as it means that the mount has not been exposed to years of dust, dirt, or other air pollutants.

Key Pieces of Vintage Taxidermy That Have Sold at Auction

One of the most fascinating aspects of the field of vintage taxidermy is the sheer variety of animals and approaches that can be found in exceptional condition. From the traditional mounts of big game to the fantastic unicorn and Maurizio Cattelan’s playful use of taxidermy, it is hard to deny that taxidermy has established itself both as a science and an art form.

Antique Taxidermy Tells its own History – Make it Part of Yours

A piece of vintage or antique taxidermy tells a fascinating story: not only does it present an artfully preserved animal, but it recalls for the viewer the splendors and the lure of wild nature.  It also reflects upon the history of collecting that took root in the Victorian era and continues to enthrall collectors today. Whether you’re an avid hunter or amateur zoologist, vintage taxidermy offers a most unique example to bring into your collection that, when cared for well, can continue to stand proudly for years to come.