Life Home & Garden

Monday 24 June 2019

Why did a New Yorker pay $70,000 for eight dead squirrels wearing tiny boxing gloves?


Gloves up: Belfast squirrels by Sheals take to the ring and abide by the Queensbury rules
Gloves up: Belfast squirrels by Sheals take to the ring and abide by the Queensbury rules

Eleanor Flegg

In the red corner there's a taxidermy squirrel, dressed in white breeches, a red belt and boxing gloves. The squirrel in the blue corner is similarly dressed, but wears a blue belt. They have the stance of boxers, ready for the fight, in a miniature boxing ring. Both have their tails removed. The boxing squirrels are enclosed within a display box; a second box shows the progression of the fight. The red-belted squirrel has knocked his opponent to the ground. The blue squirrel looks as though he's had the stuffing knocked out of him.

"I knew those squirrels were going to do well," says Amy McNamara of Adam's. The boxing squirrels sold at Adam's as a single lot at the Country House Collections sale in October where they fetched €8,000. She'd placed the estimate at a conservative €3,000 to €5,000.

"Anthropomorphic taxidermy is a chancy thing. It's hard to measure its popularity and you don't come across it every day." Anthropomorphic taxidermy is made by taking the treated bodies of animals and displaying them in human scenarios and, often, in miniature human clothes. "According to McNamara, it's harder than it looks. "That kind of taxidermy is rare because it was so difficult to make. You're manipulating delicate figures, dressed in clothes, with all their fur attached and no wires showing. Only a very skilled taxidermist can do that."

The cases were inscribed: "Mounted by Alf. Sheals, Naturalists, Belfast." Alfred Sheals (1856-1929) was a second generation taxidermist. He and his brother Thomas worked at the family firm "James Sheals, naturalist and taxidermist," founded by their father at 32 Corporation Street, Belfast, in 1856. "They were considered the best taxidermists in Ireland at the time," McNamara says.

Sheals wasn't the only, or even the first, to create tableaux of boxing squirrels. A set of five similar scenes, created by the Victorian taxidermist, Edward Hart (1847-1928) is currently on display in Castle Ward, Co Down. The UK's National Trust dates them to around 1900, pointing out that the squirrels are wearing boxing gloves, which became mandatory when the Queensbury rules came into force 1867. Because there are five dioramas rather than two, their story is more detailed. Hart described them as "Grotesque Groups" and made several, one of which turned up at auction in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2013. The four pairs of boxing squirrels were sold at Rachel Davis Fine Art as separate lots but all four were bought by the antiques dealer, Christopher English, from New York State. He paid, according to a Washington Post report: "$70,000 for eight dead squirrels wearing tiny boxing gloves." The notion of displaying anthropomorphic animal groups seems to have originated in Stuttgart, Germany, where Hermann Plouquet (1816-1878) was the taxidermist at the Royal Museum. He was one of 14 taxidermists to display their work in the Great Exhibition of 1851. John Birch Thomas (b. 1860) recalled them in his autobiography Shop Boy, published by his granddaughter in 1983.

"Best of all was a duel between two large frogs who were standing on their long hind legs and fighting with swords."

Plouquet's exhibit was so popular that illustrations of the display were made into a book, The Comical Creatures from Wurtemburg (1851; reprinted in 2017). The book may have been the inspiration for Walter Potter (1835-1918), an amateur taxidermist who became famous for his whimsical Victorian dioramas. In 2003, the contents of Mr Potter's Museum of Curiosities sold at Bonhams for a series of staggering sums. The Kittens' Wedding (c.1890) sold for £21,150 (€24,034); The Rabbits' Village School (c.1888) for £15,275 (€17,357); and The Death and Burial of Cock Robin (1861) for £23,500 (€26,704). Potter had many imitators. The Egg Thief, a Victorian court room tableau "in the manner of Walter Potter" is currently for sale at Ayre & Co in the UK for £5,000 (€5,713). It shows a jaybird in the dock, an owl on the bench, and a jury of 12 angry finches.

Anthropomorphic taxidermy isn't everybody's cup of tea. But the tableaux come from a time when people thought differently about animals. Edward Hart saw himself a conservator of the species, although he killed the birds to make his taxidermy, and Alfred Sheals identified as a naturalist. His papers on The Breeding of Squirrels (1921) and The Rare Birds of Ulster (1922) were published in the Irish Naturalists' Journal. Now, the notion of presenting dead animals in human scenarios is a long way from serious scientific study. Back then, people didn't see those activities as incompatible.

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In the Salerooms

Matthews' Auction Rooms

"I'm really laying off accepting dull brown Victorian mahogany," says Damien Matthews. "Granny's dead and gone to heaven, no one wants her furniture anymore." He's currently preparing a two-day auction of more varied fare, which will take place in the Dukes Bros Building, Kells, Co Meath, on February 9 and 10. "We have one very interesting vendor in this auction, a retired American living here now who collected eastern and Chinese objects from the 1960s to the 1980s," Matthews says. "Besides all this the auction includes some nice period things: a Georgian desk, an Edwardian baby grand piano, a two-door Regency bookcase, several antique Persian rugs, bronzes, antique paintings and prints, gilded mirrors, lots of antique silver, some good estate jewellery and a quantity of leather-bound volumes on various subjects."


City Auction Rooms

The entire contents of the Manor House, Mooncoin, will go under the hammer at the City Auction Rooms, Waterford, on Monday at 10.30am.

The auction, which also includes furniture from other sources includes a six-drawer mahogany tall boy (Lot 319: est. €400 to €600); an antique glass dome on stand with a light (Lot 386: est. €150 to €250); a modern dresser made by Keith Mosse (Lot 407: est. €500 to €700); and a large four-poster pine bed (Lot 660: est. €300 to €500).


Antiques & Vintage Fairs

What is a tazza when it's at home? It's a wide platter on a long stem and it looks a bit like a cake stand! A rare George 1 silver tazza is one of the attractions travelling down to the Cork Antiques Fair, which runs at the Clayton Silver Springs Hotel on Sunday. The tazza, for sale on Jimmy Weldon's stand, is engraved with the Arms of the Alcott family and hallmarked in Dublin in 1726. Made by Thomas Myles of Waterford it will be one of many pieces of provincial silver at the fair. The fair is organised by Hibernian Antique Fairs and runs from 11am to 6pm. Admission is €3.50. Also on Sunday the Meath Antiques & Vintage Fair will take place at the Ardboyne Hotel, Navan, from noon until 6pm. Admission to the fair is €3.50 per person. See


Auctioneers around the country are consigning the items to sell over the forthcoming months, and the Fine Art specialists of Adam's are doing complementary valuations. The valuations are confidential and the specialists will consider items ranging from fine art and furniture - both period and mid-century design - to historical documents and artefacts, watches and jewellery. The tour begins on February 11 in Belfast and then moves to Derry on February 12; Galway on February 13; Limerick on February 14; Killarney on February 15; Cork on February 16; and Kilkenny on February 17. The valuations take place in local hotels and are by appointment. Contact Katie McGale on +353 1 6760 261 or

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