The bones of curiosity
Toronto oddity shop features skulls, preserved human brain
There’s only one place in Toronto where you can buy a fully articulated human skeleton ($2,950), a mastodon tooth ($245) and a pouch made from kangaroo scrotum ($22.50).
It’s the Prehistoria Natural History Centre & Skull Store Oddity Shop and its wares are as off the beaten track as its location at 1193 Weston Rd., near Jane St. and Eglinton Ave. W. The shop carries thousands of wild and domestic animal and human bones for sale, antiquities and oodles of oddball items, including a vial of Mount St. Helens ash.
Of course, some of the store’s content, while inarguably interesting, may not be to everyone’s taste.
The sight of a two-faced cow — stillborn in Alberta and kept in formaldehyde — segments of preserved human brain and a dog tapeworm may be too much for the squeamish. But while unusual, they are part of nature and that’s what interests Skull Store owner- operator Ben Lovatt. His “passion for understanding the natural world’’ goes back to childhood visits to the Royal Ontario Museum.
His store, which is open Friday through Sunday, attracts a diverse crowd. “While we do get quirky and strange folks wandering in to expand their oddity collection, the majority of our visitors are simply people curious about the natural world,” Lovatt says. “Every week we see families on educational outings with their children, teachers and folks with a background in the sciences and medicine.’’
Lovatt hopes to build on the educational aspect of his collection. On June 1, he’s moving to the Bloor St. W. and Ossington Ave. area, where he’ll have more space for bigger bones, including a 4.9-metre pilot whale skeleton. His expansion plans include proposing in-class presentations to school boards.
The 29-year-old entrepreneur started buying and selling fossils, and acquiring oddity items as an interest. He opened the store about five years ago, after purchasing the collection of the former natural history Hobberlin museum. Hobberlin was affiliated with the North York Board of Education before it closed in 2002.
Items from this collection, including endangered turtle shells, are on display for education purposes in the store’s Prehistoria Natural History Centre and are not for sale. There are also taxidermy specimens, including a black bear, a stillborn tiger cub from a Canadian animal sanctuary and a raven, which was rented to the producers of the television series American Gods, premiering on Amazon Prime on May 1.
Lovatt stresses that all of the bones he sells have been ethically sourced and he follows all existing laws, rules and regulations, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is the body that regulates international animal trade. Canada is a signatory.
If he can’t determine the source — often the case — or if his gut tells him something’s not quite right, he won’t take an item.
A few years ago, he ran into such a situation that escalated into a death threat. A man from Cameroon sent him photos of mandrill skulls. He claimed the primates had been legally hunted. Lovatt saw bullet holes and, believing the seller to be a poacher, said he wasn’t interested.
The skulls arrived anyway, somehow making it through Canada Customs and landing at Lovatt’s door. Soon, Lovatt began receiving threatening emails to pay up or else.
Lovatt contacted officials with CITES as well as the police, who advised him to let the man know he was under the protection of authorities.
Eventually the emails stopped, but not before Lovatt was warned, “if I ever travel to Cameroon, I’m a dead man.”
Many of the animal skulls and bones at the Skull Shop were bought from First Nations sources (beavers,
“When you hold a skull, you’re looking at yourself.” BEN LOVATT SKULL STORE OWNER
bears, wolves, walrus), or they came from farms, zoos or are the discards of lawful hunting.
Lovatt abides by the CITES regulations and gets the required permits when it comes to the international animal trade. There are no Canadian laws preventing the sale of legally acquired human bones.
Two human skulls decorated by members of the New Guinea Asmat tribe are displayed behind glass in his shop. They are priced at $1,800 and $2,450. The skulls, estimated to be up to 100 years old, were traded to American soldiers after the Second World War and brought to the Unit- ed States, Lovatt says. The skulls are of tribal ancestors that were exhumed “to call for spiritual guidance and protection,’’ he explained. After a period of time, the spirit is deemed to have left.
But most of the human bones on view were bought from retired doctors, or estates of deceased doctors. Some human brain segments came from the specimen collection of a retired U.S. doctor.
To Lovatt, these are all a source of wonder and education. Looking at human bones “helps to give us our context in the world,” he says. “When you hold a skull, you’re looking at yourself.”
But not everyone is convinced that human bones should be sold. Paul Racher, president of the Ontario Archeology Society, says that in general — and he hasn’t been to Lovatt’s store — he has concerns about cultural properties that cross borders, the trafficking of human remains and the commoditization of natural and cultural history items. He believes allowing the sale encourages looting.
“Human remains are different than regular ‘things,’ ” he said. “There have been times in our history when such specimens were obtained without consent (looted from graveyards, kept as war trophies, taken from institutions). Many such items are still circulating in the marketplace.”
He questions whether acquiring human remains can be ethical.
“If a person donated their body to science some decades ago, for instance, would it be ethical if it ended up as a curiosity in someone’s collection? The initial transaction may have been ethical, but those ethics were left behind the moment the remains were diverted into a use not intentioned by the donor.’’
Ben Lovatt holds a horse skull. Lovatt is the owner of the Prehistoria Natural History Centre & Skull Store Oddity Shop, which features human and animal skulls as well as other oddities.
Lovatt says the New Guinea Asmat tribe would exhume skulls for "guidance.’’
Ben Lovatt’s Prehistoria Natural History Centre & Skull Store Oddity Shop houses two human skulls decorated by members of New Guinea’s Asmat tribe and priced at $1,800 and $2,450. They could be up to 100 years old.