Antiques with animal magnetism
Last week the Mossgreen auction house in Melbourne sold what was modestly described as "A Private Collection of Antiques and Decorative Arts".
The majority of items were ornate Sevres vases and gilt clocks from the Louis XVI period but hidden deep in the catalogue was something even more bizarre - a selection of animal-skin rugs, plus a zebra trophy head and a pair of suede armchairs decorated with stag antlers.
Every item in this section sold, most for well above estimates. The tiger-skin rug went for $9760 (estimates $3000 to $5000), a lion-skin for $7930 ($2000 to $4000), a black panther for $2928, a leopard-skin for $2684, a puma-skin for $2928, a zebra-skin for $2562. All prices include buyer's premiums. The antler armchairs sold for $2440, above estimates of $1000 to $1500. The zebra head sold for $1159.
This is still a controversial area. Mossgreen managing director Paul Sumner would not reveal the name of the mysterious collector but the owner has been identified elsewhere. No surprise that these came from the estate of the late Emmanuel Margolin, one of Australia's more eccentric self-made millionaires.
He arrived in Australia in 1951 with £7 in his pocket. In less than a decade in Melbourne, he accumulated 14 car yards, a cattle stud and a Toorak mansion. But a credit squeeze in 1961 left him owing millions and almost wiped him out.
He got back on his feet via property deals and by the 1970s had made another, bigger fortune. He moved to Sydney, where he's best remembered by connoisseurs of kitsch for his El Caballo Blanco dancing horse spectacular, on the highway near Narellan.
Margolin, and his passion for exotic animals, made occasional appearances in the Sydney social pages. In 2004, Jeni Porter revealed in The Sydney Morning Herald that residents of an exclusive waterfront apartment block in Point Piper were complaining about a stuffed zebra head displayed on the balcony of the penthouse owned by Margolin. This is likely to be the same one sold by Mossgreen.
Margolin said at the time he'd picked it up many years before from a taxidermist in Victoria. He stressed that these animals were from his private zoo and had died of natural causes.
There is still concern over the sale of endangered species, even those that died naturally, but a shift in attitude has taken place over the past 10 years, with a boom in the past three or four years. It now seems that people love this stuff and are happy to pay big money for surviving examples.
In June 2010, taxidermy was among the big sellers at the liquidation sale of former developer Warren Anderson's private collection of antiquities.
The two-day sale held by Bonhams Australia raised $13.1 million, still thought to be the record result for any single-owner sale. Highlights included a rare Javan rhinoceros trophy head (sold for $108,000), a red deer stag head ($40,800), four penguin displays ($15,200), a Bengal tiger rug ($18,000), even a brass-mounted horse's hoof dinner bell ($840).
These prices surprised even industry experts who suddenly realised that this was an untapped market.
The problem since has been sourcing suitable material. Speaking before this latest sale, Sumner described potential buyers as a mixed breed, noting one gent who was interested in the tiger-skin rug because his daughter wanted it for her bedroom. Another wanted a skin, preferably with head attached, to make a grand statement for his entrance hall.
The exotic is in fashion, Sumner says. People are now wanting to break out of the same-old, same-old.
Lee Hardcastle in Sydney is one of Australia's few specialist dealers in animal skins and taxidermy. He says that those interested in this area belong to two different schools. Warren Anderson, for example, was fascinated by historical natural specimens, and most of his collection was the work of Rowland Ward, perhaps the most famous English taxidermist in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
A second school sees these more as quirky decorative items. British TV presenter Jonathon Ross is a noted collector and partly responsible for the renaissance.
But there's still resistance in some quarters. Some countries ban the sale of this material in any form, even zoo specimens or antique examples.
Rhinoceros heads are not allowed to be sold in Britain without certification because of the illegal trade in horns. Hardcastle supports this move and expects something similar to happen here.