Winter 2000–2001

Leftovers / The Bone Trade

Corporeal collectibles

Gregory Whitehead and Walter Sculley

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

Author Gregory Whitehead poses some questions to Walter Sculley, a self-described “dealer in corporeal collectibles.”

Cabinet: So... the bone trade.

Walter Sculley: That’s correct. I suppose the more formal desig­nation would be something like “the international market for corporeal collectibles,” but dealers usu­ally just say “the bone trade,” even though we deal with much more than bones. The key word here is market—that’s where the material comes from, and, ultimately, that’s where it’s going.

How do you respond to those who condemn the bone trade as a rationalized form of grave robbery, or body snatching, selling human remains for profit?

I field such accusations all the time. What can I say? Such materials exert a powerful fascination. That fascination creates a market. I’m just here to serve the market. I haven’t been anywhere near a graveyard in years! Living history from dead remains. That’s what I’m selling, and that’s what people want. Contact with a dead person through a living artifact that happens to have once been part of the dead person. The only thing more democratic than the free market is death, right? So here’s a business where the two go hand-in-hand.

Can you say a word or two about how the trade is organized?

Pretty much along the same lines as most other collectibles markets, though each dealer may have his own reference system. I organize my offerings first by physical category—fingers, skulls, brain matter, blood samples, eyes, whatever—and then by historical or cultural categories—American presidents, movie stars, Nazis, outlaws, and so on. As in any market, the quality material pretty much sells itself, and the rest, as we say, is best left to the birds.

I wasn’t aware that eyes were part of the trade.

Oh yes. Eyes are a very substantial market. In the case over here, for example, I have a number of outstanding eyes bought from the estate of a deceased client. Along the top shelf, up there, there are single eyes from Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens, and Charles Lindberg—I call them the three Charlies—and an unauthenticated (but highly possible) complete set from Edgar Allan Poe. Worth a fortune and a half, if the tests come back positive.


The usual forensic processing, but in our case, we scrutinize not only the item itself, but its “career path,” its provenance, so to speak. Obviously, absolute authentification is often hard to establish, especially for the flood of material coming in these days from Russia. I mean, I had a guy in the other day who says he used to be KGB, walks in here with a bag full of bones of bigtime Bolsheviks, Czars and what-not. Now, how am I going to check his story? In the end, it’s the market that makes the final decision of whether a story is good enough. We never try to hide the question marks. We have a saying in the trade: “Never twist an arm to sell a finger.”

So how does the trade break down, in terms of proportional sales?

Skulls, then eyes and fingers, then brain matter and blood—the “Big Five” I call them—unless it’s really something unusual, a famous tumor or something like that. All other materials would fall into the category of miscellany, and appeal only to very specialized collectors. Hearts are having a bit of a run right now since the genetic testing of Louis XVII came back positive. I mean, every sleazy pseudo-aristocrat on both sides of the Atlantic wants a slice of that little blueblood muscle. People often ask, ‘what about genitalia?’ Well, I won’t tell you they’re not out there, but for my part, I consider it in bad taste.

But dealing Nazi blood and bones is not in bad taste?

The Nazi trade is a tough one. A week doesn’t go by where we don’t have some skinhead strutting in wanting to buy a skull or two for the sake of nostalgia. Usually the price of the stuff screens them out. But anyway, I really can’t get into the meaning of the material. I can control the material, but not the meaning.

So what, then, would you say drives your market? Obviously more than a simple interest in history.

True. If the interest were only historical, they would probably stick with documents, autographs, icons, and the like. I don’t know, it would certainly be easy to entertain cheap psychoanalysis, and a lot of people say, oh right, it’s just necrophilia or what not. I can only tell you the kinds of things my clients say when they contact me. Now, these are very often men—and many women, I might add—of considerable wealth but not a whole lot of cultural visibility or celebrity. Not much glamour. So for the right price they can have a little osteomemento from the body of Marilyn Monroe squirreled away in the safe, together, maybe, with a slide of Winston Churchill’s blood, or a slice off the presidential polyp. Some form of post-facto access to celebrities they could never have in real life. I mean, look how exemd people get about an autograph, say an autographed picture of Judy Garland, so imagine the exemment if you could buy the hand that wrote the autograph!

You mean to tell me that Judy Garland’s hand is for sale?

I can’t say that it is or it isn’t—it was only an example. There has been a lot of Garland material floating about recently, though.

And what about the so-called “presidential polyp”?

Well, yes, as you can imagine, at the time of Reagan’s intestinal surgery, there were more slivers of polyp floating about than chips off the Old Cross. And the prices! I mean, even dirty latex gloves used during the surgery were going for serious dollars. I still don’t really understand the Ronald Reagan end of the market. The only American President who competes in price is JFK, and you have to remember there was a lot more Reagan material available. Lincoln is a distant third, and that's mostly because of Civil War buffs. On the international front, there are a lot of people waiting for Pinochet to hit the market. I get a lot of advance sales on Pinochet.

What is there currently available from JFK?

Oh, endless tissue slides, usually of brain matter, most of dubious origin. I never touch the stuff. When clients express interest, I tell them, sure they can have a Kennedy brain slide, but if all the brain samples in circulation were put back together into a unified organ, you would need a tow truck to transport the damn thing. And, of course, we get regular inquiries about the, uh [gestures vaguely towards his waist]... but my research indicates fairly conclusively that he took that particular bit of his anatomy with him.

Right. Well, I suppose you come into contact with all kinds of cults.

[Laughs] Beyond belief. And more than enough counterfeiters to meet even the most kinky demands. By my last estimate, there were close to a thousand Hitler fingers on the shopping block. And you can imagine the number of people claiming to own the one and only Pelvis of Elvis. But these aren’t really serious collectors. What they are pursuing is something much closer to religion. I mean,the Lady Di stuff out there is through the roof. And Argentina! Argentina really takes the cake for weirdness: I’ve seen thousands of those tiny little glass vials sometimes used for pharmaceuticals, full of murky liquid and marked Sangre dEvita. Cult of Perón, I guess. Most of this kind of stuff just gets wholesaled to the specialty medicine market in China.

Specialty medicine? You must be joking.

No, I’m not joking. I’m not one to indulge in China bashing. It’s a huge market for me, but they do have some pretty unusual ideas about medicine. And there’s always talk about what parts work best as aphrodisiacs, with different techniques for mashing them all up. That market exists just about everywhere. A lot of interesting items just end up in somebody’s digestive tract. To me, that’s depressing. And now, with all the speculation in human genomics stocks, all kinds of choice items are starting to be sucked out of circulation by the big bio-tech firms. Who knows where that material will end up? I mean the whole bottom will drop out of the market if you can start to grow duplicate organs out of soybeans or what-not. Scary.

In the meantime, you seem very much at home in the trade, despite having to operate more or less underground.

Hah! I’ll have to remember that one. Look. The bone trade is unavoidably controversial, intrinsically a little bit strange, and political by definition. Bones are loaded, no matter where they’ve been, or where they’re headed, and the stories they tell are full of surprises, not always what people want to hear. Think of the case of Vietnam MIAs. Up until a few years ago, various speculators were buying up all kinds of bones, no questions asked. The hustlers had a field day. Then the forensic anthropologists would come in and tell some grieving widow who’s just been given a small box full of remains supposed to be from her husband: “Sorry, but these are the bones of a medium-sized quadruped, probably a dog.”

I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.

My point is that what’s legal is so often at odds with what people need to fill the holes in their private lives, whatever their motivations. That’s where pornography comes in. Now, is what I’m doing pornographic? Who’s to say? If people can find more meaning in the skull of a movie star than in their own flesh and bone, who am I to judge?

Gregory Whitehead is a playwright for the theater of the invisibles. His research into the bone trade is the subject of a forthcoming film Death and the Market. He is the co-editor of Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (The MIT Press, 1992).

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