An Unusual, Slightly Creepy, Antique

A late Victorian Taxidermy case from Ontario belonging to my client’s great grandfather

One of the most exciting things about what I do for a part time living is that I never really know what I’m going to find when I go somewhere to do an appraisal. Case in point: I recently came across a late 19th century taxidermy vignette that belonged to my client’s great grandfather.

The idea of animals being stuffed and put into a glass box to stare out at us forever is one that doesn’t sit well with me, but as a student of history and antiques, I know that this was common in the 1800’s. I’ve come to accept that, as long as the animals have been sacrificed for this trend, at least they are still being cared for – much like a fur coat that was made fifty years ago. Use it and honour the animals. Our rejection of the idea by throwing it out really does create waste. Just don’t buy new. I digress.

According to Wikipedia, ‘By the late Victorian era virtually every large village in the UK had a resident ‘professional’ taxidermist and almost every home a stuffed bird or mammal of some description. And interest in the natural world, the advent of foreign travel and the lure of big game hunting before the era of animal conservation ensured the industry thrived into the 1930s.” This would have been the case for eastern Canada as well, as the Anglos in the eastern Canada would have followed British customs.

According to the client, these are species of birds from Ontario where his ancestor lived. The round white objects are real eggs.

The trend in collecting / stuffing animals died out in the 1970’s although there is, apparently, a renewed interest in collecting antique taxidermy. Some things I discovered:

  • ‘Collectors want the products created by well known taxidermists. Each area or community had its own master taxidermist and some of these names are well known in such circles.’ The case would have had a plaque on the base identifying if it came from a certain famous studio however these apparently have been faked due to recent collecting interest.
  • ‘Not all taxidermy was a one-off. Many firms produced such cases in a factory production line with lesser quality.’ I’m not sure if this means that the cases were of less quality or the products used in preserving were of less quality. I assume the animals were of excellent quality, however I would expect that more commonly available animals would have been in these less expensive cases as well.
  • Owls are considered endangered so it is against the law to have anything to do with stuffing them – even if they are dead due to an accident or other critter. A person needs permission to have one in their possession. I suspect that, because the owl in this case is antique that it might be handled much like ivory is handled. It is necessary with ivory to prove that the item is more than 100 years old or else it is against the law to sell it.
This little one makes me sad

“Condition is key. ‘Mothed’ is the collector’s term for insect attack that has caused irreparable damage. Ideally taxidermy should be kept at an ambient temperature, out of direct sunlight and subject to pest control. Sadly that is not always the case and the high cost of professional restoration (often significantly more than the item’s commercial value) dictates that only a small percentage of antique specimens are worthy of preservation. It is always preferential to have the case sealed and in its original.”

Values for such items depend on condition, name of the taxidermist, authenticity and the market. It takes a specialist to determine the condition of such objects and whether the restoration cost makes sense when compared to its restored value. Values can be anywhere from $1000 to $20,000 and more.

Do any of you have objects that have been preserved this way? How do you feel about the idea of taxidermy – especially considering it’s now becoming more collectible?

4 thoughts on “An Unusual, Slightly Creepy, Antique

  1. We have a friend trained in Taxidermy. He no longer does it, but the works he did do are beautiful. He stuffed animals & birds for wildlife educational centers and, of course, for hunters (not a fan of that aspect, but that’s where he made his living). He was particularly skilled at fish & birds. Wildlife officers would call him if they found small animals or birds as roadkill. I personally see nothing wrong with stuffing animals killed by natural causes, like roadkill, if roadkill can be considered ‘natural’. I don’t own anything stuffed, mostly because it would feel weird to have something looking at you all the time – gives me chills.

    1. I agree. In my research I found out that, even in the situation of roadkill, you can’t get an owl stuffed. One person complained that they had to keep the owl in their freezer (6 months and counting) while he waited for the ok from the authorities. Somehow the one that bothered me the most was the little critter that looked like a guinea pig (?) I’m not sure what it is but it was about 10 inches tall. Any ideas?

  2. Hi Johanne, when I lived in Belgium in the late 70s it was very common to see taxidermy examples displayed prominently in homes. Not my thing! One time, in a collectibles/antique shop, I put my hand in a basket of what I thought was remarkably crafted little birds only to find out they were all stuffed! Ughhhh

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