The veiled world of curios collecting

Words by Henry Scragg in conversation with Trudy Darmanin
Photography by Ralph Whitehead

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Henry Scragg runs Curiosities from the 5th Corner, a curios shop based in Essex, UK.

I have always had something that compels me to collect certain things. I will constantly be looking at the ground whilst walking, and pick up stones or anything that interests me.

My pockets are usually lined with stones and bones.

I used to collect everything. If I found myself with two objects of the same nature, I would find myself wanting more of them. Ten or so years back I started cutting out the general collecting and focused more so on curiosities. I’ve always loved the layers of curios shelves, skulls, bottles, objects of nature naturally formed into beautiful objects. It’s also nice to have objects that have a story behind them. 

My first human piece that I owned was a collection. I had seen a fake skull on eBay with a real skull in the background. I messaged the seller and ended up buying eleven real human skulls from him. I didn’t start collecting with any money behind me, just debt. It’s been a case of buying one piece, selling that and buying a few other pieces and so on. The eleven skulls I bought I photographed, showed on instagram and then got  buyers, sellers and collectors following my page. The skulls were sold or traded, which gave me more pieces to show.

One of these skulls was affectionately known as “Mary” as she has original denture and a full head of hair. I had traded Mary with another collector in the UK. A few years later I saw her in another collection, still I could not afford to keep her but was asked to sell her so she went off to a collector in the USA. A few years went by and I saw her again, in the hands of another collector. This time I purchased her and she’s been in my personal collection ever since.

People have been collecting curios since people became. The curio collectors of the Victorian era fascinate me. It was an era of adventure and discovery- objects would be discovered and brought back.  Having information with them was and still to this day is like a key, a key to unlocking knowledge of other civilisations, culture and beliefs. Beliefs to us that may be as shocking as ours are to them. I have a stone chisel from the Dani tribe from western New Guinea, where, when the females of the group lose a loved one, they’ll use this chisel to chop off the end of one of their fingers. To us this sounds like an extreme thing to do, but for them it is a constant reminder. Even in this day and age when so much is thrown into our faces through adverts and people telling us what we should buy, curiosities captivate so many. A timeless passion appreciated by those with a curious mind.

The most common objects I tend to sell are real human skulls. I see skulls as such beautiful objects, something that took a lifetime to grow and was such a vital part of someone’s life. In the cultures we know,  it is seen as disrespectful to deal in such things. We have been brought up in the belief that we should respect the dead more so than the living. I personally see human remains as just that, , they remain once the human leaves. As empty as a discarded snail shell.

You could love someone their entire life but not be able to pick their skull out from a line up.

 The exact skull wouldn’t matter. Skulls can be seen as a visual representation of death, a reminder that someone who once was has now gone. In my opinion people only die when they’re forgotten.

 I have some pieces in my collection that I wouldn’t want to sell, but,.. I am not a rich man and providing a future for my daughter is more important to me than any object. I have a beautiful vintage pickled Siamese twin specimen that sits within my living room that I don’t want to sell, but if the right offer came along then they would be rehomed. Something that is dear to me is a rock, painted gold. To anyone that saw it, it would be insignificant, but to me it’s a memory of when I used to set up a little curio shop for my daughter outside my shop. We painted some rocks gold and she would sell them as “lucky rocks” for £1 each. She sold a good 30 of them and this is the only one that remains.

A reminder of a happy memory and one of many proud father days.

Human remains can legally be found if you look hard enough, antique shops, auctions, online shops. I’ve found them in some random places, charity shops, skips, car boot sales. A lot of human remains were used for medical study. Most doctors and medical students would’ve had a skull or half skeleton for study as fake medical models, but didn’t have the details of who they were studying. Often these medical pieces become inherited and sold on. 

For someone new to collecting, you do not necessarily need money to collect curios. The first thing you need to do is work out what you’d like on your shelves. Do it for you, no one else. Going for a stroll in some woods or out in nature and you may come across a few interesting pieces that can be put in bottles and labeled. A collection of visual memories from a peaceful stroll. Once friends and family hear that you collect certain things you’d be surprised what they may offer you, you’d be the one they think of when they find something themselves. There are many groups and pages online that you can seek advice in and speak to other like minded people. Something to be wary of is scammers and laws. With human remains, they are legal as long as they’re sourced legally, not used for organ trafficking and not put on public display. Animals can be trickier. Certain species are endangered and owning, buying or selling them can get you in a lot of trouble. I’ve had people messaging me for advice on this and I try to help where I can.

Curios aren’t just objects. If someone walks into my shop, has a cup of tea, takes a tour of the shop and its contents, they usually find something, hidden deep within layers of other bits. Something they discover that they feel it’s theirs before they’ve even bought it. When they take it home, it’s not just an object, it, like many things, is a souvenir, a reminder of how they felt in that environment, sharing a passion with others that understand the enjoyment in the macabre.

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