Papier-mâché mannequins. Animal skulls. Human skulls. Puppets. Potions. Concoctions. An amputation kit. Trephines to drill holes in your skull. Scalpels, syringes. Masonic uniforms. An ether mask. A monkey skeleton. And lots of antlers.
These are a few of the objects you can grab from Obscura Antiques and Oddities in Manhattan’s East Village. Nestled among the neighborhood’s tiny, ubiquitous boutiques, co-owners Mike Zohn and Evan Michaelson’s space is like a walk-in cabinet of curiosities. Between the playfulness of the monkey skeleton and the glower of the taxidermied, tiara-wearing hyena and the medical concoctions arrayed throughout the room, it’s like entering into a thoughtfully weird other dimension.
Michaelson and Zohn have run the store for 20 years now. They took it over from a former antiques dealer who they both worked for. Michaelson was winding down her career as an industrial rockstar; Zohn had been laboring in the stock photography trade until he got laid off. Each had a passion for the glamorous ghastliness that now populates their store–and it just so happened that they could make a business out of it.
For the first 15 years or so, the store survived amiably, carried on by a global word of mouth. But five years ago, interest exploded by way of reality television. All of a sudden, production companies came a-calling, seeing if they’d like to do a program. The production company behind The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” eventually partnered with them, and their show Oddities is now nearing the close of its fourth season on the Science channel. This has made Michaelson and Zohn something of celebrities within the world of curiosities–and turned Obscure into tourist attraction for the eyebrow-pierced masses.
“When the store opened in the early ’90s, people had no idea what we were doing,” Michaelson says. Do you guys live here? they’d get asked. Is this an art installation? “Then the show happened,” Zohn adds, “and it just exploded.”
The “cabinet of curiosities” tradition tracks back to medieval Europe, they explain. Dukes and duchesses would go on their Grand Tour around the continent and bring back otherworldly swag–a piece of the pyramids, some Ancient Grecian bit, or fauna that nobody back home had seen before.
Perhaps that’s why Obscura feels like a world unto itself–one that is constantly renewing through its creators’ intrepid foraging.
Given that the practice itself is so old, the tricks of the antique trade are suitably archaic. You need to get good at patience and getting up early: they frequently come back empty-handed from trips in search of new oddities. You need to be able to live on your own wits: know dealers who know dealers. It’s not linear, it’s not corporate, Michaelson says. It’s an adventure.
When you’re on that adventure, they say, the most important skill for an antique dealer to have is an eye: the ability to spot value in objects that others might pass over, an aesthetic sense that builds over years of searching through flea markets.
Zohn emphasizes thoroughness–make lap after lap of each vendor, and probe the tables freshly opening or closing. Michaelson makes multiple sweeps of each object–look from different directions, because no matter how good you think you are, you might miss something. And sometimes you find it: Zohn found an old German humidor–that’s wooden dog’s head. Michaelson recently nabbed a 19th-century enlargement of sphagnum moss.
“You have to be really geeky to appreciate this,” she says. “They took a microscope and recreated it for classroom use. It’s an uncanny and bizarre object; it looks like coral but it’s clearly plantlike, it has wire and papier-mâché and paint. It’s beautiful–and you don’t know what it is. But when you put it in your cabinet, it just sings.”