When the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decided to relocate its Akron headquarters last fall, it fell to Cleveland-based auctioneer Rachel Davis to sell all the decor the company didn’t want to move. It was artwork, mostly: paintings, prints and an extensive map collection.
Then someone found the stuffed squirrels.
Tucked in a closet were four pairs of red squirrels in four separate glass boxes. Each squirrel had been prepared by a taxidermist to look as if it were boxing. The tails had been removed and the squirrels were dressed in breeches and little gloves. Taken together, they told the story of a boxing match, from the pre-bout handshake to the knockout.
“The fellow I worked with had been a longtime employee,” Rachel said. “He told me those were in the lunch room as long as he could remember. Then one day they disappeared.”
Perhaps people got tired of eating their lunches under the glassy-eyed gaze of eight stuffed squirrels.
Rachel is accustomed to selling more conventional items, but she did some research on the squirrels and found that they were made in the 19th century by Edward Hart, a second-generation English taxidermist who lived from 1847 to 1928.
Hart was known for the naturalistic settings he made for bird specimens, but he also dabbled with what he called “Grotesque Groups.” These included “The Prize Fight,” which originally consisted of six separate squirrel scenes recounting a pugilistic encounter. It’s unclear how many sets Hart made, but another example is in the collection of Castle Ward, a historic house in County Down, Northern Ireland.
“It was the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, that brought taxidermy to the attention of the British public,” wrote Christine Taylor in an e-mail. She’s keeper of natural sciences in Hampshire, the English county where Hart worked. Victorian taxidermists created such anthropomorphic scenes as hedgehogs ice skating, dormice dueling and kittens sitting down to tea.
Rachel decided to break the Hart lot into four separate pieces. “I felt it would bring $300 to $500 a piece,” she said.
Christopher English heard about the auction. He and his partner, Stephen Dori Shin, operate a high-end antiques store in Lake Placid, N.Y., called Antediluvian.
“I’ve seen a lot of taxidermied squirrels in my life,” Stephen told me. “Modern taxidermy doesn’t get the muscle tone correct. In the Victorian era it was a work of art.”
And these specimens, he said, were especially good. “There’s motion in every one of them. You can see the squirrel literally throwing the punch. You can see the one squirrel getting hit and falling back. It’s just amazing to look at.”
Because of the low reserve, Christopher thought he might be able to snag them for next to nothing. He drove to Cleveland for the auction.
That’s where he found others were just as keen on the squirrels. There were a few other bidders in the room and many more bidding online. When the first pair came up, it quickly blew past the reserve.
Said Rachel: “When it got to $14,000, I stopped and said, ‘You understand this is just for the one box.’ They were all nodding, ‘Yes, we know.’ ”
The first pair went to Christopher for $19,000. He got the second pair for $15,000.
“By the time I was into the third box I just couldn’t back down,” he said. “It was just an ungodly amount of money for these damn squirrels.”
The hammer price for the complete set of stuffed, boxing squirrels was $70,000.
“Afterwards I had to leave the room and go to the bathroom and think about what I’d just done,” Christopher said.
He’d just paid $70,000 for eight dead squirrels wearing tiny boxing gloves.
Christopher figured he would be stuck with them for the rest of his life, but within a month he’d found a private collector who found them as fabulous as he did.
“I told them, ‘These are expensive and they’re priced at a ridiculous level, but it’s something you’ll never, ever have the opportunity to own in your lifetime again.’ ”
I asked Christopher whether he managed to make any money on the deal.
“We made a profit, but it was a small margin,” he said. “I’m friendly with most of my clients. When I get something extraordinary, I don’t get greedy. Pigs gets fat; hogs get slaughtered.”
And squirrels? They get stuffed.
Nearly 400 readers entered the inaugural Washington Post Squirrel Photo Contest. To see two dozen of the best entries, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. The Post also put together a squirrel decor gallery for Squirrel Week. And if you happen to be downtown, check out the enlargements of the eight finalists on display off our lobby, at 1150 15th St. NW.