Living with antiques: The Oddities Couple

Pieter Estersohn Living with Antiques

Fig. 1. Regina Marie Cohn and Ryan Matthew Cohn at home. A hippopotamus skull sits atop the table. Photography by Pieter Estersohn.

If, in certain circles, atmosphere is everything, it’s a testament to Ryan Matthew Cohn’s commitment to a particular aesthetic ambiance that he proposed to his wife, Regina, in the catacombs of Paris. Such was the Cohns’ mutual appreciation for the underground milieu of dark rituals described in the 1891 novel La Bas (or, in translation, Down There) by Joris-Karl Huysmans—the most decadent of the French authors of the Belle Époque—that Ryan pitched woo there despite a severe case of claustrophobia.

Ryan and Regina Cohn are the proprietors, among their other ventures, of the Oddities Flea Market, a bazaar of the bizarre. Vendors deal in medical ephemera, natural history curiosities, osteological specimens, taxidermy, and more—all, as their website puts it, “lovingly curated for fans of the macabre.” The market sets up at locations that range from New York to Los Angeles to Chicago, where it will be held the first weekend in April this year.

Fig. 2. A decorative suit of armor from the nineteenth century is surrounded by wooden war clubs and other weapons, most from South America.
Fig. 3. This group of antique hand-shaped artifacts includes two reliquaries, at left, and a curious wax hand with lips.
Fig. 4. The marble bust of a veiled woman is identical to a c. 1895 sculpture by Emilio Fiaschi (1858–1941) in the collection of the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida.
Fig. 5. A no-longer-functioning nineteenth-century Black Forest clock with a blinking-eye escapement.
Fig. 6. A bronze Apollo of c. 1871 by Mathurin Moreau (1822–1912) stands atop an eighteenth-century Spanish vargueno, or portable desk.

But where oddities and locations are concerned, the strangest conjunction of the two may be the place the Cohns call home. It seems peculiar that two people who share a very specific niche taste for the Victorian Gothic should live in the placid seaside town of Westport, Connecticut—a place where different shades of blonde hair might be the most distinguishing feature among locals. “We didn’t move to Westport,” Ryan explains as the three of us enjoy dinner by the shore. “We found a house . . . and it was in Westport! We were living in Brooklyn, very involved with business endeavors, and hopped on a train to explore this house in Connecticut. We found ourselves relishing the space to house our collection.”

And what a collection it is! The 1874 Italianate house fits in well in the quiet neighborhood, but open the door and inside is a walk-in wunderkammer—or studiolo, cabinet of curiosities, kunstkammer, or whatever term you like—in which a visitor is confronted by antique cabinets filled with skulls, automatons, anatomical oddities, exotic specimens of taxidermy, and a haunting marble bust of a veiled woman that recalls the imaginative fashioning of textiles in marble by Antonio Corradini and Giuseppe Sanmartino at the Cappella Sansevero in Naples, Italy.

Fig. 7. The central room on the ground floor contains a mix of natural and religious artifacts as well as eccentric furnishings such as, at left, an intricately carved nineteenth-century Anglo-Indian table in the style known as “Bombay blackwood” and an early twentieth-century bergère with chinoiserie scenic motifs on the sides and back.
Fig. 8. The Cohns call this space their “reading room” because it contains their collection of rare books and manuscripts, which date from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries and cover topics including natural history, human anatomy, and the occult.

Learning just how and why people assemble collections of whatever they collect is a fascinating endeavor, and the Cohns’ collection is a profoundly personal and idiosyncratic one. More and more often today—just as in the Gilded Age, when art dealers such as Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson facilitated the making of great American collections—twenty-first-century private collections are the work of curators. Not here. For Ryan and Regina Cohn, every piece in their collection was chosen with the effect of the whole in mind. Yet each individual piece sparks curiosity on its own.

The two met nine years ago. Regina—who had worked for the effervescent punk fashion designer Betsey Johnson and for Agent Provocateur, the luxury British lingerie brand—was looking for a skull. Specifically, she sought a kapala: an ornamented cup fashioned from a human skull and used in some Hindu and Buddhist rituals. She saw a photo of a jeweled red example that Ryan had posted on Instagram and sent him a message to ask about it. They decided to continue their discussion over a drink in a Brooklyn bar, and, Ryan says, “an instant lightning storm of connection” ensued.

For his part, Ryan Cohn began his professional life in Manhattan as a designer of jewelry for Ralph Lauren’s various labels. During his off-hours he explored the city, indulging his interests in bones and other anatomical and natural history curiosities and antique mechanical contraptions, and built a circle of acquaintances with similar tastes. Along with friends who owned a shop, Obscura Antiques, in the East Village section of the city, he hosted a TV show, Oddities, which ran on the Science Channel from 2010 to 2014. On the program, the hosts explored the genres of collecting that had brought them together, ranging from unusual taxidermy to antique circus memorabilia and anything mythical with horns.

Fig. 9. A Second Empire vitrine holding fossils, pieces of coral, and a shell is flanked by gilded eighteenth-century Italian putti grotesques with faces in their stomachs.
Fig. 10. In the “formal room,” as the Cohns call it, a nineteenth-century Austrian lusterweibchen chandelier—a traditional regional form that incorporates a carved wooden female figure (here, a mermaid) and elk or deer antlers—hangs above a Louis XV–style desk. The nineteenth-century German wax écorché bust at right was likely a teaching tool in a medical school.

In March of 2017, the Cohns organized the first installment of the Oddities Flea Market, as a way to combine Ryan’s passion for collecting and Regina’s flair for business marketing. They brought together seventy vendors from their shared contacts in the field of unusual collectibles at a venue in Brooklyn. The market was a smashing success, so popular that they had to turn away customers. The couple stages the market regularly around the country, along with ancillary events concerning all things arcane. (This spring’s Chicago edition will include demonstrations of cat-skeleton articulation and the making of hairwork memento mori.) The Cohns also conduct a monthly online auction. “The growing interest in this genre has created a large community for us,” Regina says, “but it has also caused prices to soar.”

Much of Ryan’s time is spent curating installations of the strange and compelling at various venues, often using artifacts from the couple’s collection. Last fall, for example, he presented an exhibition entitled Myths and Mysteries at the Armour-Stiner House, an octagonal Second Empire mansion in Irvington, New York (see The Magazine ANTIQUES September/October 2019). He put together the displays at House of Wax, a lounge bar in Brooklyn the Cohns own that is decorated with medical grotesqueries from a nineteenth-century German wax museum, a collection Ryan purchased in 2015. For a photo shoot of actor Daniel Radcliffe for Playboy magazine to promote the film Victor Frankenstein, Ryan supplied a mounted human skull that he had sliced laterally—a presentation piece meant to be a modern interpretation of the historic Beauchêne skull, a disarticulated, or exploded, human skull created by an early nineteenth-century French surgeon for use in medical teaching.

Fig. 11. An Eastlake-style display cabinet in one corner of the formal room holds a collection of skulls and other osteological specimens. The nineteenth-century terracotta statue of a woman holding a theatrical mask may represent Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.
Fig. 12. The late nineteenth-century dining chairs with barley-twist supports are attributed to the New York firm R. J. Horner and Company. The tapestry-upholstered Louis XIV–style armchair at rear is also attributed to Horner and Company and was once in the collection of interior designer Bunny Williams. Above the sideboard is an eighteenth-century depiction of Cleopatra and the asp inspired by a painting of c. 1628 by Guido Reni (1575–1642).

Over our dinner in Westport, the conversation navigated into the history of the wunderkammer, or “room of wonder” in German. I have always sought these spaces out in my travels, and, albeit on an otherworldly level, I regard the Cohns’ collection as an American interpretation of these historically significant proto-museums.

The first cabinets of curiosities, as they became known in English, appeared in the sixteenth century as displays of treasures owned by the nobility. Items emblematic of erudition were placed on view in dedicated rooms to broadcast the cosmopolitan tastes and knowledge of those aristocrats. In 1565 an Antwerp physician named Samuel Quiccheberg published Inscriptiones Vel Titvli Theatri Amplissimi, which is regarded as the first treatise on the organization of museums. In his formulation, cabinets should ideally include naturalia (items created from the earth), mirabilia (rare natural phenomenon), artificialia (man-made items), ethnographica (objects from around the world), scientifica (items to bring a greater understanding of the universe), and artefacta (objects of historical importance). This assemblage of objects would provide an understanding of the wider world to visitors through objects ranging from never-before-seen animal and mineral specimens to wondrously ingenious mechanical devices. As time went on, zoological and botanical specimens were displayed using the Linnaean classification system, further contributing to arrangements that both represented the quest for human knowledge and lent credence and respectability to the owner—and, by extension, the visitor.

Early significant examples of these collections were put together for Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg in his Kunstkamera, now the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria aggregated his remarkable collection in his Chamber of Art and Wonders at Schloss Ambras, and Cosimo de’ Medici’s collection is now found at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In 2013 the Kunstshistorisches Museum in Vienna magnificently reinstalled more than two thousand Habsburg dynasty objects in its Kunstkammer. The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford houses the collection of artifacts gathered in the seventeenth century by Elias Ashmole. More recently, Jean-Baptiste Deyrolle’s natural history collection, begun in 1831, was reinstalled following a fire in 2008 that devastated the taxidermy shop that bears his name on the Rue du Bac in Paris.

Fig. 13. The stairwell wall is hung salon style with a mix of nineteenth-century portraits and religious artifacts and paintings.
Fig. 14. The upstairs library has a display case filled with skulls, masks, and other head-related artifacts, as well as two life-sized lay figures, or artist’s mannequins: a wooden nineteenth-century example at left; and an eighteenth-century French papier-mâché example at right.
Fig. 15. The framed length of braided hair in the upstairs library is a nineteenth-century memento mori.

In the early years of the American republic, artist Charles Willson Peale created a sort of wunderkammer in his museum in Philadelphia—where the objects on display included a mastodon skeleton. P. T. Barnum degraded the genre with his museum in New York by showing hoax specimens such as the Fiji Mermaid, a supposed marvel made by grafting a monkey’s head and torso onto a fish tail. Present-day public cabinets of curiosities include the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, with its installations of medical and anatomical artifacts, and the permanent exhibition Cabinet of Art and Curiosity at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, which includes man-made and natural splendors donated by collectors ranging from J. P. Morgan to the late art and antiques dealer Peter Tillou.

In the Cohns’ live-in cabinet of curiosities, the emphasis is not on splendor but on atmosphere. Their collection manifests the quirks and contradictions of the late Victorian era—a simultaneous fascination with science and the occult, an age of unbelief and of spiritual zeal. These were the decades that saw the publication of both On the Origin of Species and the novels Frankenstein and Dracula. You can see all the paradoxes of the time in Westport, in the mix of skulls and medical artifacts and religious sculptures and paintings of the saintly in ecstasy.

Fig. 16. Atop a built-in platform in a room on the top floor stands a nineteenth-century cast-iron bed once owned by Andy Warhol and a variety of religious artifacts. The platform is faced with paneling salvaged from a church in Newark, New Jersey, that was damaged by fire.

The last decades of the nineteenth century also saw a revival of appreciation for the handmade, and I am reminded of this on a later visit to the Cohns’ home. I found Ryan in his studio restoring several objects. His expertise in repairing antiques is exceptional and his skills and dexterity owe much to his early training in jewelry design under the tutelage of a silversmith, who gave Ryan many of his tools. Surrounding Ryan as he tinkers away are shelves filled with odds and ends that have made their way to New England—bottles of spirits and adhesives, and assorted modern and antique implements that he uses to resuscitate things that are in need of attention, or at risk of further deterioration. Wearing his leather apron and standing at his workbench, he cuts a dapper figure, like a craftsman from a time far past. That image belies the present day in the same way that the collection of curious objects that he and Regina have amassed in suburban Connecticut cuts across centuries.