Good morning/afternoon/evening (whichever it is where you are). I am the Art Historian’s Apprentice. Every once in a while, I will make an appearance on this blog. I’ll mostly be delivering news in the art history world and whatever else comes to mind. Hopefully I will be able to add another element to this wonderful blog, and I hope you all enjoy my posts on here.
I’d hate to end such pleasantries abruptly and move onto something so serious, but then again, I’d hate to bore you with pleasantries when we could be talking about something so much more interesting. Let’s start at the center of the matter — no sugarcoating: human bones are being sold online; sometimes, even, on very popular websites. Well, minus one. A couple of months ago, eBay banned human bone sales on the popular auctioning and sales website. This seems like a no-brainer. Why would anyone sell bones online? Where do they even get them?! (a question better left unanswered, in my opinion.)
I made this discovery, as I am sure others have, through National Geographic. I came across their article, titled “Human Skulls Are Being Sold Online, But Is It Legal?” Subtle, I know. So, why am I talking about this on an art history blog? Well, strangers and friends, the article brings up one particular artist, Zane Wylie (which is actually apparently his pseudonym), who purchased his first skull online (specifically on eBay). He wanted a real human skull in order to study how facial muscles attach to the skull. That’s where his obsession started. His first skull was named “Yorick” (very original), and by 2011, he began to carve designs into them. He sells them on and offline, now, making a pretty penny off of his unique artwork.
One of Zane Wylie’s pieces
EBay, however, was not the only place to acquire bones of the human variety. These sales appear to also be common enough on Yahoo! and Facebook. God only knows what’s listed on Craigslist. One would assume that these bone sales would continue without much hindrance, but this assumption proves incorrect. Now that attention has been brought to these sales, bone artists and enthusiasts have started to become more wary of their niche market crashing. The state of Louisiana has now banned all trade and most ownership of human remains, and one would assume that other states would not be far behind. Some traders have become a lot less public with their sales, doing things such as deleting Instagram accounts in order to avoid trouble.
So, on one hand, we have what may turn out to be the end of human bone art — legal human bone art, that is. On the other hand, There is a question of whether these sales should have ever been happening in the first place. Yes, of course clean, articulated skulls heading to a doctor for medical purposes seems fine, but not a whole lot of people followed those guidelines. Zane Wylie was not a doctor, nor was Yorick articulated. Not to mention, as my friends in class commented upon seeing my writing, considering these breaches of the rules already taking place, “where do the sellers even get the bones?”
Thankfully, Yorick’s previous owner was an archeologist, so that skull’s origin isn’t quite as murky as others’ could be. Even disregarding the origin of these pieces of the human body, there is still the fact that these are actual pieces of a human’s body. I’m about ninety-nine percent sure selling a dead person’s bones isn’t a very respectful way to treat him or her — unless, of course, that’s what he or she wanted to be done with his or her remains.
As a conclusion to this article, I would like to share my own thoughts and ask for yours. I would love to have a skull to model off of for my art, but I think I would just stick with a synthetic model. Taking the risk of purchasing a human body part that was possibly acquired in a grave robbery is not my cup of tea. Besides, I am sure the article on National Geographic will spur a movement for stronger enforcement of bone trading regulations. Needless to say, I, personally, would not want to be caught in the middle of that for the sake of owning a skull. Still, this does affect anyone like Zane Wylie, who makes a majority of his living off of human bone trade.
This prompts me to ask you: what do you think? Is buying bones online to create art a little too much, or does it seem fine? Like any other issue of this kind, the answer isn’t so simple. Where would you draw the line? Art pushes boundaries, but is this a little too much? Should online bone trade be shut down entirely to the public? Is there any way to completely safe-check every sale? Comment your thoughts below, and let me know what you think.
Until next time,
PS: Check out the National Geographic article.