Like a freak show frozen in time, Obscura houses unusual and one-of-a-kind items; everything from a human skull to a taxidermied cryptid. Bizarre antique medical instruments, turn-of-the-century masks, Victorian hair jewelry and amusement park fortune teller heads make up just some of the shop’s inventory.
Co-owners Mike Zohn and Evan Michelson share a passion for these hard-to-find items, many of which are downright creepy. Zohn discovered his love for antiques back when he was just a teenager and was learning how to drive. While cruising down a quiet street, Zohn got lost and stumbled upon an antique store housed in an old barn. His curiosity led him inside and almost instantly he was hooked. Shortly after, Zohn started buying antiques and began learning about rare and strange artifacts such as taxidermied animals, circus and sideshow souvenirs, and natural history artifacts. Zohn didn’t just buy for his own personal collection; he supplemented his salary as a photo researcher and editor by purchasing items he could later resell as profit. Whatever money Zohn made, he then put towards antiques that he really wanted. And before long, Zohn had a plethora of artifacts collected. So much so, he knew he either had to seek help for a hoarding addiction, or open a shop. As it turned out, a shop was Zohn’s best option because the stock photo company where he worked, started to crumble. For the former photo researcher and editor, taking a job with antiques was just a temporary fix until Zohn could find a different, and perhaps better, job. That was fourteen years ago.
Today, Zohn wakes up before sunrise in order to find all the magnificently eccentric artifacts his Obscura Antiques and Oddities showcases. And when Zohn is not stocking up on femur bones and coffins, he gives lectures on 19th Century taxidermy automata.
Obscura’s other owner, Evan Michelson, is an avid collector and a museum aficionado. What many don’t know is that Michelson was a hardcore rocker back in the 1980s. Her first band was considered a goth/industrial/post-punk group known as Killer Weasel. The rockers were famous for being pyromaniacs and for dousing their audience with blood. And though the blood was fake, rumors began to abound that a few audience members died during Killer Weasel’s first show. According to Michelson, “it was all good from there.” During this time, the blood-loving rocker chick found her husband (a graphic artist/musician/composer/animator) while perusing through junk. Both were looking for instruments to add to their industrial bands. Michelson progressed from post-punk to cyber-punk in the 1990s, and then joined in with a fetish band, where she played in dungeons.
Michelson’s love for the dark and morbid came long before her gothic rock days. She has always had a fascination for anatomical/medical antiques and for artistic depictions of the extremes of human experience. Michelson became intrigued with how “art melds with pain and ectasy” and also the esthetics of grief. Funerals, cemeteries… Michelson loves them.
During the week, she attends various markets and auctions. With such a strong passion for the macabre, Michelson has earned the nicknames, Morticia Addams and the Death Lady. And when she is not presiding over the shop with Zohn, Michelson is acting as a scholar-in-residence at the Morbid Anatomy Library where she conducts weekly lectures.
Just where would a shop like Obscura Antiques and Oddities be without a knowledgeable buyer? Ryan Matthew is a collector and can trace his passion for finding artifacts all the way back to his childhood. He would go out into the woods as a young boy and find trinkets that he would keep as treasures. Eventually Matthew progressed to baseball cards and then went on to accumulating horror movie props.
Today, he keeps a prized collection of Victorian taxidermy, skulls, skeletons, and early industrial lighting. The avid buyer is intrigued by the medical field and taxidermy, and is very hands-on with his studies. Over the years, Matthew has collected various animal skeletons, some of which were made into skeletons by his dog. Matthew would clean the bones and then would attempt to rearticulate them. He would “figure” the skeletons out by studying the specific animal at hand. With a passion for osteology (a love of bones) and for Victorian taxidermy, Matthew has purchased at least one human skull off of Craigslist. He would then disassemble and rearticulate, making the skull a Beauchene or an “exploded” skull.
There is no surprise that, as a buyer, Matthew travels quite extensively, where he looks for great finds at flea markets, auctions, and even yard sales. Sometimes people will bring items to him.
Matthew’s best discovery was Mr. Woofles, a Victorian taxidermied house dog set in a glass museum case. Mr. Woofles was won at an auction after a very long and rainy drive, followed by an agonizing buyers’ battle. And though Matthew owns the much sought after Mr. Woofles, there is one other artifact he would do anything to own. “At Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, there was an amazing anthromorphic diorama of taxidermy kittens having a tea party that I would most likely faint if given the chance to buy,” gushes Matthew.
It isn’t just the owners and buyer that bring magic to Obscura Antiques and Oddities. More so, it’s the colorful and quirky clientele. The collectors selling and the curious buying, are often oddities in themselves. Though it may be obvious that a shop such as Obscura would strongly appeal to the Addams Family, it is not unusual to see soccer moms and business men scouring the shelves. For Obscura, there is no such thing as a “typical” customer. Zohn and Michelson routinely welcome tattooed artists, black-lipped goths, and pierced musicians into their shop, but also cater to school teachers and office professionals. Some of Obscura’s more famous clients include Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the Mutter Museum, Ralph Lauren, and Danny Elfman. Whether the customer is wildly eccentric or conservatively demure, one common interest is shared- an appreciation of the strange.
Some of the city’s more artsy and creative individuals will come in looking for an inspirational purchase. Buying a new pair of blue silk Manolo Blahnik heels can be great shop therapy for a girl feeling blah. Well, in this case, a mummified cat might be the perfect mood lifter for a struggling artist. Perhaps a buy from Obscura is intended as a gift, rather than something to just put near an easel or in a recording studio. Some visit the shop for birthday and Christmas gifts, while others look for anniversary presents for their special someones. After all, nothing says love like a set of rotted human teeth.
Obscura Antiques and Oddities is such a bizarre little shop, and is so popular with tourists and locals alike, that it has become the star of the hit series, Oddities, which airs on the Science/Discovery Channel every Thursday at 10:30 p.m. The show, which sparks great water cooler conversation, exposes what goes on behind shop doors daily. A friend of mine turned me onto watching it recently. I DVR-ed one episode, and that was all it took for me to get hooked.
I have always dreamed of owning a store much like Obscura. All of my life, I have had a strong appreciation of antiques. I feel that each period piece tells its own unique story. And I’m not just an antiques lover; I am also very much into all things morose and funereal. My favorite holiday has always been Halloween. Instead of going to a park for a picnic, I’d rather have lemonade and sandwiches in a graveyard. As a young child, my dream job was to work one day as a chambermaid at DisneyWorld’s Haunted Mansion. So, yes, Obscura would be the perfect shop for me to own. Sadly though, I would probably have to close as I would surely not be able to sell a single item; I’d want to keep everything for myself. How could one part with such delightfully ghoulish wonders?
So, here I am, giddy with excitement, watching my first ever episode of Oddities, living vicariously through Zohn and Michelson.
Genesis, a very eccentric but loyal customer to Obscura, came into the shop to sell a trumpet made out of a human thigh bone. The ceremonial instrument was said to be used in rituals to call upon spirits and also is considered to possess healing powers. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard of before. Zohn and Michelson felt it would make a perfect addition to the shop, however, they wanted Genesis to “play” it first. After a few very sour-sounding attempts, the bone trumpet blew out a semi-respectable note and a deal was made.
Next off, an artist came in looking for -you guessed it- an inspirational artifact. When offered a skull, the pierced, dark-haired dude disappointedly shook his head, denying the piece. Skulls were just too common for this guy. After shrugging off a few more medical antiquities, Michelson dangled the carrot, so to speak. There it was, looking the wide-eyed customer right in the face. A pig head with brain matter “exploding” out of the top of its head, covered by a glass dome. “This one is definitely speaking to me,” grinned the very pleased musician. This little piggy went “wee, wee, wee all the way home” with the rocker dude for the bargain price of $1,000.00 Who knew that pig brain matter could be so creatively inspiring? I’m so glad this guy held off for one of the rarest pieces in the shop. Skull, schmull…boring!
Obscura Antiques and Oddities collects and deals in the weirdest of weird; from the “medically interesting to macabre.” So, it was no wonder that shrunken heads would be inevitable on an Oddities episode. Considered to be one of the rarest objects in the business, shrunken heads are worth a pretty penny, at least for the real ones. There are plenty of fakes in the market right now, and many are hard to determine whether they are real deal. Typically a replicated shrunken head is one made of animal skin and hair.
A gentleman on this particular episode walks into the shop, presenting his most prized possession, a shrunken head. Though it’s an amazing, one-of-a-kind artifact, the customer did not wish to keep it and came to sell.
First, Zohn must make sure the head is authentic. If it is, it could fetch up to $30,000. With its dark skin, whiskery hair and sewed-up mouth, the tiny head is disturbing.
After Zohn had a shrunken head expert examine the artifact, its owner was updated with the exciting news that what he has is indeed legit. The historian felt the owner could easily be paid $10,000 for his find. Zohn would not be able to clear the purchase just yet though. He had to first get his lawyer’s approval. Dealing in real human flesh can be highly illegal and that is not something Zohn is prepared to get involved in. Depending upon what the shrunken head was used for at one time will determine its fate as of today. After doing some shrunken head research, Obscura’s lawyer found that this particular head was intended for commerce, considered to be a “tourist head.” If it was to be used ceremonially, then it would be forbidden to sell. However, since it was to be used for selling in the first place, Obscura could make the purchase.
Thrilled, Obscura announced the good news to a very happy and relieved client. Unfortunately, a $30,000 price tag could not be awarded. Neither was one for $10,000. Offered $5,000, the head strong owner wouldn’t take less than $8,000 and felt that a negotiation was in order. In the end, the gentleman left Obscura without his shrunken head, but did have $6,000 more in his wallet.
The episode didn’t stop there. One man, an obsessive taxidermist, called Zohn out to his residence to show off his mounted collection. His apartment looked like a hunting lodge. The man promised Zohn that he had found a cryptid, the elusive Jackalope. Not exactly the Chupacabra or Bigfoot, Zohn wasn’t too impressed when he saw the fuzzy, bunny-like creature with antlers staring back at him, expressionless and stuffed. The man excitedly recalled the day he found and then killed the strange hybrid. He claimed that he was in the woods, taking a potty break, when he heard rustling in the brush and saw a creature. He shot and killed the supposed Jackalope. Zohn, finding the humorous tale hard to swallow, got the so-called Jackalope hunter to re-hash his story and tell it the way it really happened. It was then that the slightly embarrassed man deflated, and admitted he found it for sale at a gas station instead. Still, Zohn made the buy for his store, and got a date besides. The taxidermist finagled lunch with Zohn, and in addition, got over $200 for his little critter. I could only wonder if Mr. Jackalope got to tag along for lunch, too? Seems only fair to me.
All in all, my first Oddities episode was well worth watching, and as I said before, I’ve been a fan ever since.
And if you should ever find yourself in New York City, be sure to stop by and say hello to those fun folks who make Obscura Antiques and Oddities so very weird and wacky. Whether you’re shopping for a new skull to add to your collection, a stuffed cryptid, or you desperately need a vampire killing kit, Obscura has just that morbid little piece. A nightmare to some; a dream come true for others, but one thing is for certain… Obscura Antiques and Oddities “ain’t your grandma’s antique shop.”
So kick the mudane to the curb, be prepared for the bizarre and open your mind; you’ll be pleasantly surprised once you enter into the world of the medically macabre.
If you have an item you may want to purchase from Obscura, or would be interested in selling, contact Mike Zohn at Mike@obscuraantiques.com.
Obscura Antiques and Oddities
280 E. 10th St., New York City
Open 7 days a week, 12-8 pm
Special thanks go to the Discovery Channel’s web page.