Oddities bring in a pretty penny

Auction of closed Dime Museum's contents is a field day for aficionados of the bizarre

February 27, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN REPORTER

They came in cat ears, in polka-dot scarves, in leather jackets. Their glasses were chunky, their ears pierced, their eyes wide with wonder.

As video cameras rolled, as checkbooks flipped open, as a few eyes misted with tears, they came one and all, stepped right up and took their chances, these 300 or so bidders who packed a Timonium auction hall last night for the liquidation sale that spelled the end of Baltimore's American Dime Museum.

Richard Opfer, the auctioneer, said the phones started ringing at 2 p.m., three hours before the auction began, and never stopped. The callers asked about the Gator Girl ("Was she too big to fit in a truck?"), the albatross ("Were the tail feathers white?"), the Giant Bat ("flying mammal or baseball item?").

By 4 p.m., the line was outside the door. By 5, when Opfer took up the mike and began his patter - "Lot No. 1, Lot No. 1, how much for the Legendary Ball of String?" - 770 bids from eBay lit up Opfer's computer screen, two phone lines were tied up, and potential buyers among the hundreds in attendance were filling the aisles.

The American Dime Museum, owner and curator Dick Horne's eight-year-old homage on Maryland Avenue to the curiosities of old-fashioned carnivals and sideshows, closed for financial reasons this year after years of on-again, off-again business.

Last night, he auctioned off the contents. And everywhere, bidders seemed to exude the appropriate touch of reverent whimsy for the bastion of the bizarre that had become a favorite haunt of director John Waters and a symbol of Baltimore's quirky humor.

Jennifer May, 49, and her son, Mark May, 28, private folk art collectors from Reading, Pa., were looking for a good deal on a pet curiosity - for her, anything from a merry-go-round; for him, "creative taxidermy." But they resolved to exercise caution.

"He's engaged," Jennifer said of her son, a teacher. "He'll be getting married this June - if he doesn't bring home anything too disgusting."

`Part of history'

"Just want to be part of history," Mark said.

Others had special interests. A woman with green hair, shamrock earrings and a pumpkin-and-black sweater had her eye on works of art in human hair.

"I'll only bid on the quality stuff," said Pamela Apkarian-Russell, who runs the Castle Halloween Museum in Benwood, W. Va., and calls herself the Halloween Lady. "Our collection's already extensive."

Artist Peter Excho, longtime assistant to curator Dick Horne, had one item in mind but wouldn't say what it was.

"Talk to me afterward," said Excho, his lower lip festooned with silver pins for the occasion. "I want to win it for Dick."

Others got serious - up to a point, anyway.

As Opfer rat-a-tat-tatted through lots 4, 5 and 6 at a pace of 100 lots an hour, Kelly Kinzle, an antiques dealer from Pennsylvania, flashed his bidder's card to snag a Medical Torso ($750), then a scarlet tin left over from the defunct but legendary Haussner's restaurant in Highlandtown ($120). He might be able to sell those, he said. Then again, maybe not.

"All I can say is, if you want it, pay for it," he said, hoisting his card for another bid.

They came and went: a bucktoothed duck ($275), a giant taxidermic fish ("You can tell a hell of a lie with that one," cracked Opfer), a finger painting by Betsy the Chimp ($1,700, to a bidder on the phone), the 9-foot Peruvian Amazon mummy ($3,000, including the glass case).

In her bifocals and oversized tennis shoes, Reisterstown artist Laura Heim, who once had a bit part in Waters' Polyester ("pregnant unwed mother," she says) and met Divine ("a gentle giant"), all but stole the fake leather jacket fringed with human hair.

"A Baltimore conversation piece like this for $85?" Heim said. "I'm so sorry to see the museum go, but I'm glad to get such a deal."

Through it all, the man in the back, the father of the Dime Museum, remained serene, all things considered. Horne, 65, will rent the former museum space and use it as a studio for his own art. He said he hadn't had such a tough day since the time he faced having to put to sleep his beloved 15-year-old dog, Willie.

`It's just time'

"It's kind of the same thing," he said. "Part of me thinks, aw, maybe I could keep this going for one more week. Another part of me knows it's just time."

Then again, it's often hard to get a direct statement out of Horne, who, asked once whether an oddity in his collection was real, replied, "If I dropped it on your foot, would you be asking that question?"

His eyes glinted as he watched the shrunken heads, the severed hands, even the Gator Gal vanish from his life one by one.

"I don't know what any of these things are really worth," he said with something like a grin as the sale went on into the night, raising more than $100,000 with a half-hour to go. "I never did this for the money, you know? How can you put a price tag on what you love the most?"

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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