I fell in love with babirusas – or, more specifically, their skulls – at Dover Street Market a couple of years ago. For those who have never encountered this magnificently ugly Indonesian wild pig, its most distinctive feature is two pairs of upward-curving tusks that sometimes grow round and pierce its brain. As I gazed lovingly into its eye sockets, I realised this might just be the one thing I wanted most in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t pounce upon my prey there and then, and it got away.
My next opportunity to buy an antique babirusa skull arose while flicking through the catalogue for last November’s Evolution sale at Summers Place Auctions (which saw a diplodocus skeleton go under the hammer for £400,000). Again I was pipped at the post.
As in so many things, the internet came to my rescue when I chanced upon Bone Clones, a Californian company that sells museum-quality replicas of animal and human bones. Instead of waiting two years to find another babirusa skull, I ordered one online and received it in the flesh (so to speak) less than two weeks later.
Although made of polyurethane resin, this handcrafted specimen was sensitively cast from a real skull and looks very authentic, with the tusks painted to match the original. It’s also more durable than natural bone (or “resists breakage”, as the company puts it), and happens to cost significantly less. The Bone Clones skull (first picture) is priced at $325 (about £285 once VAT and international shipping have been taken into account), while Summers Place Auctions’ one was pushed over £1,000 by the buyer’s premium.
Part of the beauty of Bone Clones is that it allows the imagination to run riot. Think of an animal, and there’s a good chance it’ll have a specimen, available on demand without any ethical problems – not just hard-to-find species like my babirusa, but also critically endangered ones whose organic counterparts come swathed in red tape or are impossible to obtain legally at all. For example, the trade in most tiger parts is banned under international CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) regulations, but here you have a choice of fresh skulls from two sub-species (Siberian, $295, and Bengal, $309). And this must be the only place where you can obtain a giant panda skull ($270) without making the Chinese government very cross.
Animal skulls were Bone Clones’ main focus when it started in 1993 and they still dominate its zoological catalogue, from the familiar (eight breeds of domestic dog, from $160) to the exotic (Ganges river dolphin, $375) to the truly bizarre (two-faced calf, $675). Bird, reptile, amphibian and fish skulls are represented too, along with striking articulated skeletons of species such as the fearsome Komodo dragon ($4,400, second picture), enormous goliath frog ($525) and peculiarly proportioned brown kiwi with its unfeasibly large egg ($995, third picture).
Bone Clones also offers replica fossils, with an emphasis on prehistoric mammals, including several preserved in Los Angeles’ famous La Brea Tar Pits (the articulated smilodon sabre-tooths – from $6,800 – are particularly appealing, fourth picture). As educational institutes make up a large proportion of Bone Clones’ customers, the modern and fossil ranges also include assorted claws, teeth, eggs and even (should it take your fancy) an orangutan brain ($210).
I may not have room for a full-size sabre-toothed cat in my flat – and it might be several years before I come across another real babirusa skull – but in the meantime this breathtaking replica fits beautifully into my burgeoning cabinet of curiosities.