Sunday, February 1, 2009


Collecting, Even Fingerprinting, The Ages

It's been 50 years between my visits to the Niagara Falls Museum. But its wonders have grown beyond the believe-it-or-not stuff, like two-headed sheep, thanks to the fascinating additions from the ages of everything from shrunken heads to, perhaps, a ghost.
And the collection has moved from the Falls to downtown Toronto, to a loft with expanses of wooden floors, freaks of nature and ethnological gems.
It may have all started in 1827 when this was Canada's first museum with curiosities like those that later dotted the CNE Midway and small tourist museums everywhere. But mixed in between war clubs and swords, and one of the first electric chairs, are costly relics that would be right at home in the great museums of Egypt and the Americas.
Hold a shrunken head in your hand like a grapefruit, smell its old leather scent, then close your eyes, and you can almost hear the war drums beating and the shrieks as warriors are cut down and triumphantly beheaded. The smell is a trifle disappointing because you expect smoke from cooking fires or even a trace of the hallucogenics that transported shadowy figures far beyond the Amazon.
It's all thanks to Billy Jamieson, a beguiling mix of collector, showman and enthusiastic salesman. He saved the museum as it disintegrated into leaky shabbiness, and in the process of financing its purchase sold mummies and coffins for $2 million U.S. to an Atlanta museum.
So Jamieson is remembered in the tight world of Egyptologists as the Canadian who sold the missing mummy of Ramesses 1. The pharaoh now rests in the famous mummy wing of the national museum in Cairo near the Nile. (The Carlos museum didn't feel it could keep one of the kings of Egypt.)
It's a great story about scholarly detective work and it was detailed in a NOVA show on PBS titled The Mummy Who Would Be King. Fascinating, but then Jamieson is rather fascinating himself.
(I have let him describe himself at the end of this blog in material extracted from his Internet site: which is one of his tools in generating interest in his hobby/business/passion. There's also
Walking around his museum/home and listening to him romp verbally from weirdness to displays that have other collectors sweating with envy is a unique experience. He merges an encyclopaedic knowledge with a grisly fascination for the really odd.
It happened for Mary and me because our son Mark was home from China for a visit. He had worked for eBay in Canada and noticed there was a listing for a great whale skeleton. He followed up and as a result a Reuters story appeared around the world about this Canadian who now owned the big whale skeleton that I had marveled at in 1954 while on a high school outing. As a result of the publicity, the skeleton was sold to a sheik for $200,000. (We're not talking about stamp collecting here.)
It was a cold snowy night when Mary, Mark and I visited the Falls collection with a small group, including a forensic constable from the Toronto police and students from a course he teaches. We were an attentive audience as Jamieson walked us through his collection after insisting we must give him our full attention. It was worth it. (The loft is often the setting for fund-raising, even book launches.)
Then the constable and students conducted a unique class project - seeing if they could get a finger print from a mummy that Jamieson still owns, The mummy's value was reduced by the ancient grave robbers that left it unwrapped after probing for treasure, but it's plain from its crossed arms that it is a high priest.
A rubber liquid was squirted around a finger - with a business card below in case it dripped - and then after it hardened, we all had a look. Yes, there was a print. No, the mummy was not damaged, although I kidded the forensic crew as they carefully pried away the mould that if the finger came too, I was going to tell the Sun.
Here I was holding a mummy's leg when normally you can't even touch. Indeed, for more than a decade, the mummy wing in the Egyptian museum was closed while scholars and bureaucrats argued whether it was appropriate to let tourists gawk at the bodies of your royalty.
You can tell from the fingerprinting anecdote that Jamieson is a happy throw-back to the good old days when museums were a lot of fun. Now education often drowns out entertainment.
Oh yes, you were wondering about that ghost. One of Jamieson's acquisition, along with the whale skeleton, the mummies and the two-headed sheep, was the baroque rear of a real hearse that looks like it was made for a Victorian horror movie.
Inside its glass windows you can see a large tropical fish tank. Which takes away some of its spookiness. Except there have been sightings of a ghost that perches above the skulls that line the hearse roof and presumably tries to communicate with the shrunken heads.
I've investigated several ghost houses and have heard two ghosts. So I volunteered to do a vigil with Jamieson to see if this ghost reappeared. I'm not sure the ghost would bother me as much as spending a night with more body bits than are in a small cemetery.
But if a great talker like Jamieson was keeping me company, the night would pass in a twinkling.

Ethnologist, musicologist, antique tribal art collector, dealer. Bill's interests evolve around the forgotten cultures and customs of the South Pacific, Indonesia, South America and North America. Also Bill's fieldwork among the Shuar of Ecuador and Peru helped him learn a great deal about that tribal group. His expertise has been drawn upon by National Geographic's documentary production unit for a series on headhunting, human sacrifice, and canabalism. He is also consulted by museums and researchers.
Because of his interest in disappearing Andean-Amazonian tribal rituals, he has financed and led five expeditions into Ecuador and Peru from 1995 to 2001, researching traditional naturopathic healings and related rituals. Focusing on the Shuar tribe, famous for their past custom of shrinking heads, Bill has amassed the most extensive Shuar library in existence, including a collection of shrunken human heads. Bill has also taken an interest in other cultures and collected early ethnographic material from the Native cultures of North America, South America, South Pacific, Dayak of Borneo, Naga of the Highlands of India and Batak of Sumatra.
IN 1998, Bill purchased Canada's oldest museum, the Niagara Falls Museum. Established in 1827, the museum held title to the name The Explorers Club in Canada. Bill donated the name to The Explorers Club in New York City. Nine Egyptian mummies that had been in the museum's collection since 1861 were sold to the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta.
Bill is also an antique tribal art dealer and he has set records at Sotheby's for sale in Polynesian material. He continues to find great material through traveling, chasing old collections and constant communication with other dealers. He wants to acquire great old North American Indian, Pre-Columbian, African, Oceanic and Indonesian Art, plus oddities and curiosites from around the world.

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