A 165 million-year-old fossilized skeleton of a Diplodocus sold for $652,800 in late November at Summers Place Auctions, a small British auction house. But the real news was that a 19th-century diorama of stuffed card-playing squirrels sold at all.
"For many years of my life, this stuff was so absolutely out of fashion that you wouldn't have gotten a bid for it," says Errol Fuller, a specialist in extinct creatures who organized the auction. "Only in the past decade has there been a renewed interest. It was seen as bad taste, politically incorrect, or cruel to animals." Now such dioramas are collected as novelties.
Fuller, 66, says dioramas of squirrels playing cards were ubiquitous in Victorian England. "A German guy named Hermann Ploucquet exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition," he says. "He stuffed little animals -- mice, squirrels, moles -- in anthropomorphic positions, and that sparked a tradition. ... The other things you see from time to time are squirrels in boxing settings. Shaking hands, delivering a knockout blow, and so forth."
Of the two dioramas in the auction that depicted squirrels playing cards, the larger one, which Fuller describes as "more ambitious," sold for its low estimate of 4,000 pounds, or about $6,500. The second, which included only two squirrels (playing gin rummy, maybe?), sold for 1,000 pounds, or about $1,600.
The auction included other wonders, like giant vitrines full of exotic birds ("That's really what a wealthy Victorian would have had") and various insect and marine skeletons arranged in the "exploded" style. "Exploded lobsters are modern," Fuller explains. "They're done as didactic models to show you the actual parts that these creatures are formed from." An exploded lobster sold for $1,800, and an exploded beetle for $1,200.
Fuller's favorite pieces in the sale? "I liked the head of a Gaur bison," he says, citing a piece that sold for $1,300. "It was an absolute masterpiece of the taxidermist's craft."
He also speaks glowingly of a 200 million-year-old fossil of an Ichthyosaurus, a sort of prehistoric dolphin that was estimated to sell for $82,000 to $130,000 but failed to find a buyer, and an iridescent green,100 million-year-old fossil of an Ammonite, a type of mollusk, which sold for $4,700. Assuming the mollusk started life with a dollar value of nothing, that would mean it accumulated its worth at 0.000047 cent a year.
"I kept comparing these prices to the price of a Ferrari," Fuller says. "One just sold for $28 million, I believe." He paused. "But that Diplodocus was 55 feet long and 14 feet high. Which do you think would impress your friends more to have in the garden?"
James Tarmy writes the Loot blog for Bloomberg.com's Good Life channel.