Collectibles: The Wizard of Odd

  • Photograph by Paula Wilson
    A vampire hunter would have been well equipped with this antique self-defense kit from Jamieson’s inventory. Photograph by Paula Wilson
<< Back to Robb Report, May 2008
  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

William Jamieson’s wares are not for the faint of heart. His 6,500-square-foot triplex apartment in Toronto that doubles as his showroom displays 12 genuine shrunken heads, an unwrapped Egyptian mummy, and a 19th-century self-defense kit for vampire hunters.

The kit, which was made by a London firm that called itself the Lord’s Protection Co., contains a Bible, a wooden spike, a mallet, a candle, and little bottles of powdered garlic, pennyroyal, and other concoctions. Jamieson says he sold another antique self-defense kit for $16,000, and that his shrunken heads can command twice as much. But the mummy is not for sale; he is minding it for an indecisive owner. "It’s been sitting here for six months. [The owner’s] girlfriend said, ‘Either it goes, or I go,’ " explains Jamieson, who is 53, has a full head of dark hair, and on this day is wearing black jeans, Chuck Taylor sneakers, and a black T-shirt patterned with upside-down jawless gray skulls.

A few other items in the apartment, which Jamieson shares with his dog, Ramses, and his two cats, Salem and Genghis, also are not for sale. These include the original Houdini poster hanging near the spiral staircase and the saltwater fish tank that was fashioned from a Victorian-era French hearse. Available or not, every item in view enhances Jamieson’s reputation for obtaining the bizarre, the morbid, and the weirdly beautiful. "Ninety percent of the stuff I buy, I know where it’s going," he says. "I can’t afford to keep it here. I flip it right away."

Jamieson’s collecting career began with some long, strange trips in the 1990s, when he traveled to the Peruvian and Ecuadorean Amazon and participated in tribal ceremonies that involved ingesting ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen. "This isn’t a fun thing to do," he says of the drug-taking experience. "It will show you whatever’s going on in your life that you need to understand and work on, and it can get pretty personal. It’s like going through 100 hours of therapy in one night." The Amazon journeys increased his interest in collecting and dealing in tribal art; a Sumatran shaman’s staff and other tribal artifacts line his apartment’s foyer.

Purchasing the contents of the Niagara Falls Museum, which was founded in Canada in 1827, broadened Jamieson’s focus. He will not disclose the sum he paid for the museum’s holdings, but he earned $2 million when he sold nine of its Egyptian mummies to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta in 1999. Four years later, after scholars determined that one of the mummies probably was King Ramses I, the Emory museum returned the 3,000-year-old remains to Egypt.

Jamieson is engaged in a morbid identification job of his own. He obtained a century-old electric chair from a dealer in Auburn, N.Y., which is home to a state prison. More to the point, he suspects that Gustav Stickley might have made the chair; the noted furniture designer directed manufacturing operations at the prison in the 1890s. "I believe it was designed by him," Jamieson says. "The way it’s made, the hinges, and the decorative gouges mark it as his."

William Jamieson Tribal Art, 416.596.1396, www.jamiesontribalart.com

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