If you have any skeletons in you closet, now is the time to sell them.
A human skull in good condition with its original 32 teeth brings at least $250 today. The price of what the trade calls a "fully articulated" skeleton has risen to a record $750. One reason is the escalating cost of hand-crafting a skulls and bones assembly. The other reason is a lingering worldwide shortage, brought on by the growing practice of cremation and a growing respect for the dead.
"We had offers that we turned down a year ago of $1,000 for skeletons," says William Kuerbs of Chicago's Macmillan Science Co., one of the nation's leaing dealers. "We chose to keep what we had for our own customers."
Medical and dental schools buy most of the 2,000 skeletons sold every year in the United States.
The shortage is nowhere near as bad as it was 21 months ago, when India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi banned the export of skeletons. Gandhi apparently imposed the ban for religious reasons. She is a Hindu and the Hindus burn their dead.
Gandhi's ban was felt the world over because India supplies most of the world's skeletons. Dealers say a black market flourished during the ban, with skeletons smuggled out of Hong Kong, Mexico and Peru by grave-robbers. The black market only began to shrivel up when India lifted its ban on exports, after Gandhi was voted out of office.
When pressed, dealers say they think India is the main skeleton supplier because, as one put it, "Calcutta is the indigent capital of the world. You figure it out."
To economize as prices rise, medical schools are now repairing broken skeletons instead of buying new ones. Some schools lock up their skeletons at night to discourage an age-old practice of stealing them for student amusement.
George Washington University Medical School hasn't bought a new skeleton in more than two years because of soaring prices. Georgetown University School of Medicine still buys five new skulls and five new skeletons every year but it has begun repairing the 175 skeletons it owns, mending between 20 and 30 every year with the bare bones it buys from dealers.
The University of Illinois Medical School sent back seven skeletons for repair last year to Macmillan Science Co., which now offers a new deal to a school buying a new skeleton. The skeleton is packaged hanging in a closet, which can be locked to make it burglar-proof.
Georgetwon still lets freshman medical students study its "half skeletons" at home but some schools now insist their skeletons stay inside school walls at night. Again, the reason is expense. At home, students are more careless with skeletons.
"The bones of skeletons are quite brittle, even though we do our best to lacquer them to keep them from chipping," says John Hosking, vice president of Rochester's Ward Scientific Co., which estimates it supplies 10 per cent of the U.S. market. "Our skeletons wear out a lot from student handling."
Dealers like Ward and Macmillan once tried selling plastic replicas of skeletons, in what they now describe as a futile attempt to battle breakage and get the price down."
"It didn't work," Macmillan's Kuerbs said. "The plastic replicas were perfect but what the medical schools wanted was the real thing, which is often missing a part here and there and far from perfect."
A new wrinkle among retailers is to ship the bare bones and let the medical schools assemble the skeletons themselves. This way, the skeleton "kits" cost less than $400. So far, the practice has not caught on.
What worries skeleton dealers is that India might reimpose the ban on exports. Ward Scientific said a letter to India's minister of export protesting the Gandhi ban and inquiring about the possibility a future ban has gone unaswered.
"Let's face it, nobody has been a guaranteed supplier of skeletons for the last 30 years but the Indians," Macmillan's Kuerbs said. "I've seen and repaired European skeletons, but most of those I can swear were put together before 1900."