THE BUSINESS OF BONES : Natural History Moves From Museum to Marketplace

Times Staff Writer

David Cronin's workroom in his bungalow on the outskirts of Woodland Hills could easily serve as a set for some slice 'em, dice 'em horror movie.

Alligators skulls are crammed in the freezer. The bookshelves are lined with skeletons of snakes, rodents and other critters. And the work tables are littered with assorted piles of reptile bones and teeth.

Yet for Cronin, a 45-year-old artist and self-taught paleontologist, these animal remains are the raw ingredients of a fledgling business. Take, for example, the tiny snake bones. Cronin will painstakingly assemble more than 40 of them into the skeleton of a fully extended rattlesnake jaw, mount the creation on a wooden base, encase it in a glass dome and ship it to retail stores, where it will sell for upwards of $100.

"It's hard to make a living as a painter and this is a marketable skill," Cronin says of rattlesnake jaws and other handiwork.

He's not kidding.

The dinosaur mania among preschoolers, the revival of the Georgia O'Keeffe-inspired Santa Fe decorating style, a booming market for museum memorabilia and the stellar performance of gift shop chains like the Nature Company have combined to create a growing market for what might be called objets de paleontologie , that is, skulls, fossils and other osteological curios.

"There is nothing new about kids loving dinosaurs and people loving nature," says Owen Maercks, manager of East Bay Vivarium, a Berkeley-area store that recently added skulls and skeletons to its inventory of fossils and live reptiles. "It's just that entrepreneurs have finally caught on that this is a wonderful market."

The new interest in bones isn't for all, of course. Scientists worry that they are losing rare fossils to collectors. And not everyone is comfortable living around, say, a bull's skull.

Still, at Southwest Interiors in Van Nuys, owner Andrew Cross has resorted to peddling ceramic bull skulls because he can't keep enough of the real thing on hand. And natural history museum stores--once a retail backwater--are enjoying booming popularity.

One of the best examples of the market's strength has been the surprising success of the Nature Company, a chain of book, gift and curio shops specializing in natural history items. The chain, which opened its first shop in Berkeley in 1972, now has 21 stores across the nation and is expected to generate sales of about $25 million this year.

Inventory of Bones

"The idea is to take natural history out of the closet and make it fun," says Nature Company President Roger Bergen. "And it's working." So well, in fact, that the Nature Company has already attracted several copycats, including the Natural Wonders store in San Jose.

Toy companies continue to add dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures of all kinds to their wares.

Toy stores like Imaginarium have extensive science and nature offerings. The Young Naturalist catalogue from Newton, Kan., caters to budding young scientists. And L.A. Wildlife in Studio City sells only items with animal themes.

But perhaps the most bizarre evidence of the retail paleontology market is Maxilla & Mandible, a Manhattan shop whose inventory is limited exclusively to the bones and skeletons of almost any animal known to man.

The shop, whose name comes from the Latin terms for upper and lower jaw, counts among its customers President Reagan's youngest son Ron, rock impresario Bill Graham and actress Diane Keaton.

Henry Galiano, who opened the store on trendy Columbus Avenue two years ago, believes that he's on the cutting edge of a whole movement back to natural fabrics, textures and environments.

"We're coming out of a high-tech phase," he says. "Things are coming back to nature."

For whatever reason, Galiano's formula seems to be working. Last year, he says he sold about $500,000 worth of his wares, which range from $16 muskrat skulls for the "little collector" to the $4,800, 12-foot python that enticed promoter Graham.

Without a doubt, Galiano's best customer is Scott Sherrin, a Manhattan dentist who has about 80 skeletons hanging in his loft apartment. The prize of the collection, in which Sherrin admits to have invested "well over $10,000," is a full leopard skeleton. Soon, however, he will be buying a hippopotamus skull, which is sure to shift the spotlight from the leopard.

"Why do I do it?" Sherrin asks. "I look at this from the intrinsic beauty of the structures. The anatomical and evolutionary aspects of it interest me. Besides, I'm bringing back a part of nature into my home without the adverse aspects of taxidermy."

Nevertheless, Sherrin says not everybody finds his hobby all that captivating. "A lot of people think my wife is a saint," he confesses.

The surging interest in animal remains has raised questions about whether animals are killed for their artifact value. Cronin, Galiano and other retail paleontologists say their skeletons and skulls come exclusively from animals who either died a natural death in zoos or game preserves or who were killed for their meat.

For example, slaughter houses are a main source of cow and bull skulls and the makers of turtle soup often sell the shells for conversion into curios.

The increasing number of fossil collectors has also spawned widespread concern among scientists that this hobby may not be entirely in the public interest. Scientists are particularly upset that many collectors have resorted to illegal excavations of rare fossils and remains.

"When a fossil is sold as a commercial curio, it is lost to science forever," says David Whistler, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles. "People who buy these to look at them don't want them for science."

Jason Lillegraven, a geologist at the University of Wyoming in Cheyenne, says illegal excavating on public lands is increasing, particularly in the fossil-rich states of Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota.

"There is a very large market for vertebrate fossils and I suspect it is increasing," Lillegraven says. "Some fossils are sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The prices collectors are willing to pay doesn't surprise or bother Neal Larson, who owns and operates the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research of South Dakota, a private fossil and dinosaur excavation business outside Hill City, an area known for its large cache of fossilized remains.

"Most private collections eventually end up in museums because the collectors donate them," Larson argues. "The museum collections we have now largely started out as private holdings."

Larson believes that the current interest in collecting fossils and other forms of animal remains stems from the renewed fascination with dinosaurs spawned by the recent baby boomlet and the spate of new discoveries about the extinct creatures.

Bull Skulls

Still others credit the resurgence of the parched, desert-hued Santa Fe decorating style, a motif that often includes the bleached bones and skulls popularized in the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe.

In Southern California, skeletons and skulls are increasingly finding their way into the fancy decorator studios along Melrose Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard.

For example, Rituals, a La Cienega shop featuring Southwestern and primitive decor, is currently displaying an erect rattlesnake skeleton poised to pounce on its prey and a python skeleton laid out like a bolt of lightening.

Of course, there are the de rigeur cow skulls and bull horns, which are the most popular items at most shops.

"I have a Southwest decorating scheme in my house, and and it wouldn't be complete without a skull," says Paul Robbie, a Reseda attorney who has hung a turquoise-inlaid bull's head on his bedroom wall. "I'm not into the significance of it. I just like how it looks."

Adds Maercks of the East Bay Vivarium shop: "Skulls are beautiful. It makes more sense hanging them on a wall than putting shiny rocks on your fingers."

Without the resurgence of "Southwest look," says Christine Mather, author of "Santa Fe Style," most of the bleached bones on the market today would not get a second look.

Still, Mather says Southwesterners have been collecting animal remnants for decades, perhaps as reminders of the transience and harshness of the desert life.

Skulls and bones, Mather says, are also considered more acceptable than the stuffed animal trophies that often adorn the walls of the well-to-do.

"Skulls don't imply the killing of animals as much as just the death of an animal," she explains. "A perfectly preserved skull has the same appeal as a perfect shell or rock. They are all works of natural art."

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