At Fine Art Restoration Company, we treat many unusual and eclectic artworks and items. Some of the most intriguing are found in the displays of natural history in antique taxidermy.
What is taxidermy?
Taxidermy is the term given to natural specimens which have been cleaned and preserved. Their exterior will have been mounted over a moulded form, which can be made of wire, foam, wood, cotton or unusual materials. They can either be the full animal skin or just certain areas of focus such as the head.
You will often find taxidermy animals on display at museums and educational centres, but collections can also be found in many stately homes, castles, art galleries, universities, and private homes.
Taxidermy is centuries old as a practice but is currently having a revival as a unique part of interior design, science, and artform. Collectors of all ages are beginning to find an interest and even study the art of this unique conservation, which protects both natural history and the artistic value of such pieces.
Modern taxidermy should be ethical, this means that there is a focus only on animals which have died naturally or accidentally, in contrast to historic practices which were led by hunters or biologists in hunt of trophies or specimens.
The most popular specimens you may find on display or for sale today are rodents such as white rats or mice, squirrels, fish, birds or small mammals. Collections of butterflies and insects are also much sought after. Larger taxidermy specimens are often antique, with contemporary creators in the field only using common woodland creatures such as foxes. You may find antique giraffes, lions, or gazelles in wider collections.
Outside of museum or scientific environments, these pieces have always been part of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ or ‘wunderkammer’ – a room full of notable, unique and wondrous objects which can be traced as far back as the renaissance period.
These rooms would contain objects of natural history, such as a narwhal tusk (originally masqueraded as a unicorn horn), geology, pieces from antiquity, ornaments and artefacts from travel. This concept may sound familiar, as it is currently an often used theme for interior design in quirky bars and venues around the world, as well as at home for those of us which may enjoy more eclectic and adventurous surroundings.
Some collectors of antique taxidermy are protecting natural artefacts which can tell us about the environment and world in which they were created. Whether this is from a unique animal, or from the way in which the creator decided to display the animals. We can tell from this what the prior understanding of this creature might have been, or whether it’s environment has now changed. Taxidermy also preserves animals which are now extinct, serving as priceless examples of lost species.
Like all artwork, furniture and specialist objects, taxidermy requires care and attention to help to survive into the future. Taxidermy can be assessed and restored by our specialist conservators, similarly to any other artwork. But firstly, to prevent the need for repair, there are simple steps which can be taken.
Taxidermy in fine art
Contemporary artists can often include taxidermy as a unique aspect in a multimedia approach to their subject. Most notably Damian Hirst with this array of formaldehyde animals and etymology.
Hirst’s 2008 collection, entitled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” had a catalogue alone which cost $240,000 to produce, with the final art sales going far beyond their estimations with an accumulative $200.75 million.
In 2015 The David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University exhibited a diverse collection of taxidermy by contemporary artists, precisely entitled “Dead Animals”. The exhibition displayed the growing trend in this area and the vast variety of artists who have decided to use such an element in their work, which often sells for tens of thousands. The artwork is not only unique but can be placed as a highly valuable piece of a private collection. Artists included in the exhibition include Maurizio Cattelan, Kate Clark, Mark Dion, Nicolas Galanin, Thomas Grünfeld, Damien Hirst, Annette Messager, Polly Morgan, Angela Singer, and Deborah Sengl.
Buying and selling taxidermy
- Modern taxidermy should only be sourced from Taxidermy Guild Members to ensure best practice and legality.
- Appropriate documentation must be available when purchasing an animal from a ‘CITES Species’ (register of endangered animals).
- Provenance increases value. Invoices, letters, photographs and further documents of the history of the item will help to achieve a higher price. For the preservation of these important documents, our paper conservator can be of assistance.
- In 2005 an art installation created with 16 taxidermy pigeons by Maurizio Cattelan sold for $490,000 at Phillips New York.
- In 2013 an 18th-century Ostrich sold for $33,150 at Christie’s.
- In 2017 a pheasant in a glass case went for £1,800 at auction, far exceeding its estimation of £300-£500.
- In 2015 a pair of ‘unicorn’ heads were estimated at £3,000-£4,000 at Christie’s London. The magical creatures, which were created using a narwhal tusk and white horse, sold for £35,000.
- In the past, the price per item at auction could sell for £850+. Today the price is far lower, with smaller Victorian pieces often selling at a more modest fee of around £350-£450. With revival in this area, it is possible that prices reached at auction will rise due to current fashion and tastes.
Similarly to artworks, taxidermy can face many dangers in their environment. Some of these, such as the temperature, lighting and humidity can be controlled to cease any likelihood of decay.
When choosing a location to display taxidermy, you should take into account the same procedures you might have for a delicate artwork.
Taxidermy is extremely susceptible to damage from UV rays. Too much exposure can lead to fading or bleaching of the surface. Therefore, a shaded location is preferable. It should also be noted that light from other sources can damage these fragile specimens and they should be rotated annually, if possible, to give even exposure from artificial light sources.
50-100 LUX is the recommended exposure, though more fragile feathers can be damaged at just 50 LUX. If kept at low light, taxidermy has been proven to fade at half of the rate compared to bright conditions.
Low humidity is also important, a cool and dry environment will help the preservation of the piece. Humidity of around 40% is optimal, 50% maximum. High humidity and condensation upon any glass casing can lead to mould and decay. If there are signs of condensation on glass casing, it is advisable to have the piece looked at.
A constant temperature of around 15-20 degrees celsius will provide safety. A space which is too hot can cause items in the display or upon the animal itself to severely break apart, due to their delicate antique or organic nature.
A location which often fluctuates in temperature may cause elements to expand and contract, leading to loss of detail. A steady room temperature and a location away from radiators and an exterior door are best.
Taxidermy can have inherent issues due to its organic nature, with the possibility of decay due to improper practices or chemical use during its creation. If signs of organic decay appear, you should immediately contact an expert.
Packaging, storing and transporting taxidermy
Improper storage or packaging can allow the taxidermy work to decay at a fast rate, or result in devastating damage to the surface and structure of the piece. Here are some top tips to make sure that they are protected:
- Use a layer of plain, acid-free paper before anything else. This will protect the delicate fur or scales from precariously rubbing against the packing materials.
- Make sure the work is in a secure position and unable to be moved around in the box during transportation.
- Small animals can be placed in strong cardboard boxes, but anything larger than a small fox should be given its own wooden crate.
- You can also create your own reinforcements with wooden panels, to make sure there is no ability for the piece to be pushed against.
For antique taxidermy birds or animals of any kind which are known to be very old, but seem to be in remarkable condition on its own accord, it is advisable to have them analysed by a professional conservator. This is because the most common substances to preserve animals in the past can contain extremely harmful chemicals, including arsenic and mercury. It was discovered later on that arsenic is in fact the only known chemical which does not damage deerskin, whilst protecting it.
It should be generally assumed that any animal preserved before 1960 may harbour a toxic ingredient. Although these chemicals cannot be removed, it is possible to have taxidermy items placed into a new presentation behind glass by conservators.
Protecting taxidermy with display cases
If a taxidermy item is already in a display case, it is recommended that this is checked for any acidic or harmful elements, which can be replaced with non-acidic, conservation-grade materials.
If a display case is possible for an uncovered item, this should be highly considered for its preservation. Not only will it stop pests, but it will also prevent airborne contaminants from landing on the specimen.
One of the most dangerous factors leading to the deterioration of taxidermy items is the appearance of pests. At first, this may appear as dust or nearby pellets. However, as the infestation goes on, it can become more apparent with areas being eaten away, or have rodent sized chew marks.
Common pests which can attack and lead to decay in taxidermy are dermestid beetles, moths, and rodents. Beetles can burrow deep into the item and can even eat away at keratin elements, which include horns, hair and the entirety of feathers.
A trained and experienced conservator will be able to address any infestation and decay caused.
How to clean taxidermy
It is important to gently clean taxidermy with the methods given below, as the build-up of airborne debris can be harmful.
The most common technique to clear atmospheric contaminants is the use of a hairdryer from a slight distance. This can be used on the lowest heat and power setting to gently blow away any build-up of dust. It is recommended to perform this once a month to stop any layer of atmospheric debris building up, especially if the animal is uncovered.
Avoid using any household cleaning products as the chemicals in these may harm the piece.
Modern taxidermy practices may use a dust shield spray on the fur or feathers to protect it from the harmful build up of dust and debris. This can be applied to some historic taxidermy by conservators to help with future preservation.
Although it is recommended not to touch the delicate fur and feathers very often, for a deeper clean a cotton ball can be used lightly. Never rub against the flow of the hair, fur or feathers, as this may cause damage, instead use the natural direction of this to lead your cleaning technique.
The cotton ball can be damped in this process to help collect debris or contamination, but it should not be dripping or have any residue. It is also advisable to change the cotton ball once a small layer of dirt is visible so not to spread this to other areas. Leave to air dry, do not use the hairdryer after this method as a quick change in humidity or temperature could be damaging.
A small amount of water can be used on a cotton bud to bring back shine to the eyes. A light touch from a damp cloth can be used on dry areas such as antlers.
Painted or varnished areas of the display, diorama or upon the animal itself, should never come into contact with water or cleaning products.
Contact our team of professional conservators for painted or artificially coloured areas, which will require specialist techniques to maintain the original artistry whilst cleaning away the build-up of historic debris.
Taxidermy can be restored by our trained conservation team, as they can be treated as artworks in their own right when it comes to their historic, monetary and visual importance. Items will always be restored sympathetically, making sure that the piece maintains historical and biological integrity.
This includes the delicate, thread-by-thread re-adherement of broken features, cleaning of worn areas of paintwork and dye upon a diorama or taxidermy animal, or the careful clean of a piece which is covered heavily in dust or debris. We can also offer framing or display case options which use conservation-grade materials.
Repairs which have been unsuccessfully attempted in the past can also be restored with professional conservation techniques.
For more information, please contact us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576