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Niche Market | Oddities

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Human skull and bones at Obscura Antiques & Oddities Human skull and bones at Obscura Antiques & Oddities (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Obscura Antiques & Oddities
280 East 10th Street
New York, NY

If Tim Burton, Bob Dylan and Edward Gorey had a yard sale it might look something like Obscura Antiques and Oddities in the East Village — where antiquated and dangerous medical devices are perched next to old jars of poison, and taxidermy too frightening to display in the Natural History Museum is crammed in every nook of the shop.

“We specialize in scientific antiques, medical antiques, taxidermy. A friend of mine called it, 'Stuff you didn’t think you needed until you saw it.' I call it, 'An alternative kind of beauty,'” said Evan Michelson, one of the co-owners of the over 20-year old shop.

Michelson calls it a “proto-Natural History Museum,” and likens it to the treasure houses of the 17th Century or European Cabinet of Curiosities.

The crown jewel in the shop now is a yellow-hued mummified human head with it’s eyes closed. Visitors lean close half expecting the eyes to pop open. It’s a medically prepared specimen from the early 1900s.

“We don’t carry new human heads,” Michelson said.

Michelson, who is in her 40s, Mike Zohn, 43, her business partner and one of the store’s buyers, Ryan Matthew Cohn, 31 scour estate sales, medical schools and flea markets from coast to coast in search of rare turn-of-the-century items.

Michelson began collecting things like cicada shells and rabbit fur mice, and making dioramas in her head board as an Army brat in Europe. Zhon began soon after he got his driver’s license and would get lost in Long Island hoping to stumble on an antique store that sold old cameras.

“It’s about being out there at three or four in the morning on a cold or possibly rainy day, hoping to find the rarest specimen you’ve ever seen. Or walking away with nothing,” said Cohn, who specializes is in Victorian taxidermy and pickled specimens.

In the early 1990s the store specialized in Asian art, “like walking in a little store in Shanghai in the early ‘30s,” Michelson said. She and Zohn soon took it over, changing the focus, but retaining the social aspect of the store.

Zohn said people used to hang out all night, and that people still bring dates in, “almost like a filter, so see if it’s going to work out.”

On a recent evening, the tiny store front was packed shoulder to shoulder with holiday shoppers and even a few kids marveling over the life-like taxidermy.

Jack Cappello, 12, a self-proclaimed war-buff was visiting from Florida and came in on his third day in the city.

“The bottles of old medical equipment and poisons, and all that cool stuff — you don’t find that everywhere everyday,” he said.

He says the shop is more fun than the Natural History Museum. “Where else are you going to see a coyote being ridden by a monkey? Yes, better than a museum.”

Obscura is also the focus of a reality TV show on the Science Channel, but most customers had never heard of it.

And although Michelson admits there may be ever weirder finds online, the experience of the shop cannot be replicated.

"You lose the context, which is what we try to do here," Michelson said, "we don’t actually sell online. It’s about creating a complete atmosphere so you step back in time. We play a lot of hot jazz, so it sounds older, it smells older; that’s part of the appeal of this stuff."

 

Interview with buyer Ryan Matthew Cohn (L) and co-owners Evan Michelson (C) and Mike Zohn (R).

Where does this stuff come from?

EM: We go to a lot of auctions, flea markets, antique shows. It involves usually getting up very early in the morning and driving very long distances and being out in the cold when everyone else is warm in their beds. That’s the hard part. Everything is sort of dwindling. Grandma’s not Victorian anymore. I specialize in mourning stuff and hair work, used to be able to find that, now grandma’s mid-century, World War IIish so the stuff’s not coming out anymore. Markets are getting smaller and smaller, newer and newer. We try to keep it between the 1850s and the 1920s.  But time marches on, especially with the medical stuff, we’re bumping into the ‘40s, unfortunately. Early in America is early Victorian. Go to Europe this is all new stuff.

RMC: There’s no real rhyme or reason other than it’s out there, it exists at flea markets and antique stores. It can be very difficult. Like right now, it being winter, most of the flea markets close down. It’s about being out there at three or four in the morning on a cold or possibly rainy day, hoping to find the rarest specimen you’ve ever seen. Or walking away with nothing.

What is most commonly purchased items?

EM: Catholica, the early last rites kits, holy water bottles. Little disease cards, 3-D stereo cards of diseases always sell when we get them. Beautiful examples of syphilis and postulating sores in three dimensions. Also, some not so horrible things. Early natural history engravings like 1820s to 1840s. Not everything is aggressively unpleasant here.

What is it about humans that they’ve desired cabinets of curiosity for so many years?

EM: The Romans collected Greek, so there’ve been collectors, but it got weird around the proto-Enlightenment time when things went from superstition into science. It’s not only aesthetic, there’s a little politics, religion, all kinds of spirituality involved. Only humans do this.

Is there anything you wouldn't sell?

EM:  Antiques-wise? I wouldn't deal in Nazi (antiques), that’s too far. A lot of people do, but it doesn’t gel. We’re trying to move people in time and space here to a more interesting place. Not that place. Pure evil throws the whole thing off.

Tim Burton would have a field day here. Do people come here for movie props?

Tim Burton has never come in. It’s really weird. We have done a lot of movies. We did "Smurfs" most recently. "Sorcerers Apprentice" — we did his alchemy lab. They go to the big prop houses, and then they discover us at the last minute. We did "Kinsey," that was my favorite. They bought a lot of insect collections and specimens. That was a great movie and conveyed a lot of what we’re about here. We do a lot of fashion shoots: Zink, Mademoiselle, Italian Vogue.

What was the single best day of finds?

RMC: Recently I cleared out a medical school. It was a lot of stuff they were ready to throw out. Instead of doing that, I took it and restored the collection. 

What is a golden find?

RMC: Things like mummified heads, hands, skulls with a deformity or abnormality, personally that’s the stuff I look to sell or keep in my personal collection. That’s the stuff that makes me wake up in the morning and stay in this business. But you don’t find that stuff everyday. It does exist, but it takes a lot of moving around, visiting different collections, talking to people, basically getting yourself out there. When people die this stuff changes hands, goes to auction, goes to people that don’t know what to do with it. That’s when auctions can come in handy and can be very interesting.

What’s your favorite thing about owning this store?

MZ: The store has a big social aspect. Yes, it’s a store, but it’s very social. Years ago we used to be open to two, three, four in the morning. People used to come in the old shop and ask, ‘Is this a store, or do you live here? Or, 'Is this an installation or a speakeasy?’ ” 

A jar of animal jaws at Obscura Antiques & Oddities.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

A jar of animal jaws at Obscura Antiques & Oddities.

old medicine, bottles
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Old medicine and tonics from a bygone era. "There’s a lot of pain involved. A lot of things there aren’t talked about in polite company," Evan Michelson said of the medical items for sale.

skull, bones, human skull,
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Human skull and bones once used as medical specimens for teaching anatomy. Most have been collected from medical schools clearing out their archives. The human head here is over 100-years old.

Human skull and bones once used as medical specimens for teaching anatomy. Most have been collected from medical schools clearing out their archives.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Human skull and bones once used as medical specimens for teaching anatomy. Most have been collected from medical schools clearing out their archives.

Racist caricature masks, which people buy to
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Racist caricature masks, which people buy to "reclaim their heritage," Michelson said.

A rat skeleton in a glass frame.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

A rat skeleton in a glass frame. 

More racist caricature masks.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

More racist caricature masks.

A working ventriloquist dummy.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

A working ventriloquist dummy.

Key chains made from molds of the 100-year old human head in the shop.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Key chains made from molds of the 100-year old human head in the shop.

A busy evening at Obscura as last minute holiday shopper search for some odd stocking stuffers.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

A busy evening at Obscura as last minute holiday shopper search for some odd stocking stuffers.

An old box full of old doll parts, a Japanese mask from the turn of the century and a taxidermy creature.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

An old box full of old doll parts, a Japanese mask from the turn of the century and a taxidermy creature.

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Comments [7]

Edward Stekar from Toronto, Canada

Hello Obscura Antiques, I love your store (plus your tv series).
I from Toronto, Canada. Actually from a part of Toronto, called Weston.. I love checking out yard and estate shows on the weekends. I am a disabled person, who had a brain tumor, at the age of thirteen..

The reason for my e-mail/letter, was because I purchased a ring, roughly two and a half years ago. I am a little confused on what type of ring it is. Some said that it may have been used for hair, of a loved one.. Others state that is was used to place poison inside of it..

If you want, I can e-mail you, photographs of this piece.. It's quite uniquely made. The ring consists of 14k gold with irodium plating. The setting includes a mine cut 1/4 carat diamond, four beryl gemstones and antique baroque pearls which outline the outer edge of the setting.

When you look directly down onto the setting of the ring (the top), you will see the diamond. located on each side of the diamond, are two round gold disks. When these disks are unscrewed and removed, then diamond setting can be lifted. After, a plate containing the four beryls, is removed. Underneath this, is a 14K gold plate which is also removable. What's left, is a flange with jagged edges. After the flange is removed, pick up the ring. While holding the ring's shank, tilt it, toward a bright light source. After doing so, you will notice that there is a section on the ring's side, which is grated

(- either to feel the hair of a loved one, who had past on )
OR
(- To place a poisonous powder inside. When the ring is tilted will )
( sprinkle onto one's dinner.. ) .

If you would like photographs of it (in detail), please e-mail me..

Thank You, Edward Stekar

Jul. 25 2012 05:41 PM
goatlady from Colorado

I have twin full term baby goat fetuses that appear to have Down's syndrome. They are currently stored in my deep freeze. They were born with extremely large heads, slanted eyes, undershot jaws, large abdomens, and flipper-like short legs. They died immediately after birth. I have photos available. Colorado State University was un-interested in them. In all my years of breeding goats I have never seen anything like this. I thought they might be useful for medical study. Anyone out there interested in them?

May. 06 2012 12:37 AM
Karin Golden from Oceanside, Ca

In our travels, we come up with some pretty strange stuff! Right now we have an antique centerfuge, and a very old mortician's cranial stand. Do you purchase oddities from other people?
Karin

Mar. 22 2012 12:09 AM
francyne from Pelham Bay Park

suggestion: Pelham Bay home Center, Inc. 3073 westchester ave.718.863.7529
An alternative to big box stores this neighborhood, family-owned biz has a large selection of plumbing/heating supplies, externals like faucets, appliances, cabinets. their delivery truck boasts the motto: Peace begins with a smile. Store even has a friendly dog.
i don't work there and am not related to the owners.

Jan. 20 2012 08:21 AM
George from Bay Ridge

Have you ever tried the Fountain Pen Hospital on Warren Street near City Hall? That could be your next niche market piece.

Jan. 08 2012 12:29 PM
rhoda ruggiero

i love the show. the clientele is so much fun. it is fun to see who walks thru the door with the most outlandish requests, and michEL AND EVAN DON!T EVEN BLINK. miss them when they aren!t on.

Jan. 06 2012 09:50 AM
David Gelbman

While I do watch and enjoy the TV show Oddities, I felt that using the Niche Market to explore it was unnecessary overkill.

How about Kolstein & Sons in Baldwin, NY? You'll see more upright basses there than you will in a lifetime of concerts. And Barry Kolstein is more entertaining than Oddities.

Jan. 05 2012 08:07 AM

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