Items of wonder pass through auction houses worldwide on a daily basis. Fine art, collectibles, furniture, jewelry and more dazzle bidders and enthusiasts alike. Just occasionally though, an item appears under the hammer that turns heads for an entirely different reason…
It might not be classically desirable, it might not be suitable for display on the average mantelpiece, and it might not take the shape of a traditional art form. But there’s an almost macabre appeal for something a little different that entices collectors and the curious. This isn’t your usual list of classical art. This is a step into the ghoulish world of the appealingly chilling and frankly creepy collectibles that have appeared at auction.
Perhaps a surprising place to start is with James Dean. The Rebel Without A Cause was a leather-jacketed cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement who embodied an ideal of cool, but he was tragically killed at the age of 24 when his Porsche 550 Spyder collided with a 1950 Ford Tudor driven by Donald Turnupseed on 30 September 1955.
And, this infamous crash is vividly documented in 30 unpublished original glossy photos, showcasing the grizzly and devastating aftermath of the accident when the actor had been driving westbound on Route 466 en-route to a racing event in Salinas, California.
This fascination with the final moments of life extends beyond Hollywood and into the art world, notably with Peter Paul Rubens‘ exploration of Greek mythology in the graphic Saturn Devouring His Son Peter, while Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas has a sorrowful horror to it.
Even Andy Warhol succumbed to the dark side and left behind the bright pop art of Campbell’s Soup and Marilyn Monroe with the decidedly unsettling and haunting The Electric Chair.
The chair depicted is based on a 1953 press photograph from the death chamber at Sing Sing Prison in New York, where Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed that year for passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia during World War II. And, that rooting in reality adds an additional creepy layer to the ominous, unsettling and shadowed print that’s seemingly haunted with lives lost. He repeats this in 5 Deaths, showcasing the power and prurience of Warhol’s style, alongside the arresting visceral reaction of seeing the aftermath of a fatal car accident.
Break a leg
Even when set in wax that instinctive shock of encountering death remains, as showcased by The William Bonardo Collection of Wax Anatomical Models that went under the hammer at Christie’s in 2001. A pair of Cuban heels and a pair of high-waisted woollen trousers can’t draw attention away from the unnerving prostrate life-size model of someone who has just been hit by lightning.
Undoubtedly though, this pales in comparison to the terrifying reality of medicine a little more than 100 years ago, as demonstrated by the model of an operation on the cranium using the trepanning method with a drill to penetrate the skull. A pair of armless hands provide light relief from the excruciating nature of the operation that would surely only be considered as an absolute last resort.
The models were largely made in Germany in the 19th century and formed part of a carnival ‘freak’ show hosted by Lily Binda and William Bonardo that toured Europe until Binda died in the 1980s. The collection showcases the gentle artistry involved in effectively portraying the human form, alongside the brutal reality of going under the knife a century ago.
This combination of 19th century operations with wax artistry is perhaps best realised by the windmill of hands performing a tracheotomy operation, while the moustachioed sophistication of the model gives the bubonic plague a brooding fashionable cache, just so long as he doesn’t suddenly open his eyes! Finding the best room in the house to display the models might prove to be a challenge.
However, for a macabre memento that can actually fulfil the role of a classic collectible and sit atop any mantelpiece, a decorated human skull is hard to top for those in search of a dinner party talking point. An Asmat trophy skull fits the bill perfectly and is decorated with headdress typical of its native Western New Guinea.
Alternatively, falling into the arms of a loved or a comfy chair after work can be a sweet relief. Rarely have the two been combined, but for horror fans and those with a macabre sense of style, there are a number of immaculately carved options in hard wood with welcoming skeleton arms. Or, for those that want to be rocked to sleep there’s also a skeleton-framed rocking chair, which appeared at auction in Philadelphia in 2009.