In a federal court in Miami earlier this month, a 48 year-old taxidermist named Enrique Gomez De Molina was found guilty of illegal trafficking in endangered and protected wildlife and sentenced to 20 months in prison. Documents filed with the court allege that he imported the parts, skins and remains of among others a king cobra, a pangolin, horn-bills, birds of paradise, and the skulls of babirusa and orangutans.
Despite a bust in late 2009 that forced him to forfeit two shipments, De Molina continued to solicit protected wildlife from his suppliers via the Internet, selecting them from photographs. Some of the animals he solicited were alive at the time they were photographed, including a wooly stork, a slow loris, and a hornbill. Those same animals were later sent to him in parts or as carcasses without the permits or declarations required by law.
All in the Name of Art
At his studio in downtown Miami, De Molina would join together various parts of the wildlife into grotesque taxidermy pieces, which he sold through galleries and online for prices as high as $80,000 a piece.
De Molina is not the first man to – in his words – “play God” by creating bizarre Frankenstein-like creatures for financial gain.
As far back as the 16th century, fake mermaids were fashioned by fishermen in Japan and East Asia to be sold to sailors as good luck charms. In the 19th century, scientists believed that these creatures were made with the head and body of a monkey which were sewn on to the tail of a fish, These “monkey fish” were especially popular in the 19th century as collectors began to acquire them – as well as sideshow hucksters who displayed them as mummified mermaids to the gullible.
Modern day scientists have continued to be baffled by these convincing-looking oddities. Not by the idea that they were actually half human, half amphibian but rather by the manner in which they were constructed.
In a fortunate coincidence, two British scientific institutions happened to begin separate but simultaneous investigations into the secret of the monkey fish last year. Anita Hollinshead – a student in Conservation and Restoration at the University of Lincoln in England – came across the so-called Buxton Mermaid – a mysterious, purportedly mummified mermaid in the collections of the Derbyshire County Council at the Buxton Museum. During the course of her research into the creature, Hollingshead contacted Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum at St George’s University in London, Paolo Viscardi and discovered that he and a team of scientists were in the process of researching the museum’s own resident monkey fish, affectionately known as Herman the Merman.
With the aid of advanced technology – CT scans, microscopy, X-radiography and 3D printing at Horniman – and x-rays using a phosphorous plate at the department of Forensic Sciences at Lincoln, the two teams discovered that the Japanese craftsmen used teeth and tails from a fish as a starting point for their mermaids. The body was fashioned from wood, wire, and clay and held together with some kind of animal glue. There was absolutely no human or animal skeletal material in the mermaid heads. Despite their skull-like appearance, they were made from papier-mache.
The Buxton Mermaid and Herman the Merman are scheduled for a springtime reunion
The teams’ research suggests that the Buxton Mermaid and the Horniman Merman were last together in 1982 in the collections of the Wellcome Institution. As a result of these new investigations, the two will be reunited in March for a special exhibition and presentation at the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition runs from March 19 until May 13, during which the members of the two teams will present their research. If you can’t make it to the exhibition, watch the video explanation from the BBC in which Dr James Moffatt, a physiology lecturer at St George’s University in London, explains the process by which the “mummified mermaids” were constructed.