09.06.2015

THE BONE COLLECTOR

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I once attended a lecture by Christopher Frayling about Tutankhamun. Frayling is a world expert on the young Pharaoh; his life, his death and his resurrection by Lord Carter in 1922.

There is a great story Frayling tells about the time he met Martin Scorsese. This is a little off topic, but worth reading, so bear with me, Tutankhamun makes a guest appearance at the end.

Frayling was having supper with a friend at the Dorchester Grill. At a certain point in the meal he noticed film director Martin Scorsese eating at another table, alone. He loved Scorsese's films, and every now and then he glanced over to stare at the great man. Then, with a start, he realized Scorsese was staring at him. Really staring. Staring so much he had stopped eating. The hairs on Frayling's neck stood up, as he remembered Scorsese's violent youth, his membership of Italian street gangs, fights, knifings, all those vicious films he made... and then, to Frayling's horror, Scorsese still staring, stood up and started to walk towards him. Should he run? Surely Scorsese wouldn't do anything really violent in such a public place? Frayling gripped his knife and fork and tensed, waiting. Scorsese came right up close to Frayling, and leaned in menacingly ... and said "Hey, how wonderful to see you in the flesh Dr Frayling!"

Apparently, whilst making the film "Casino", Scorsese had stayed at the Luxor Hotel, and every night when he had finished filming and collapsed into bed, he had watched Christopher Frayling's documentary on Tutankhamun, which the hotel played on a loop, too tired to change channels. Scorsese said to Frayling that he watched it so many times, he could quote every word.

Anyway, back to the lecture I saw: Frayling told us how Tutankhamun had been unwrapped and autopsied, and how after the autopsy it was noticed his penis was missing. Not that Tutankhamun had any use for it, in this life anyway, but still it struck me as a very odd thing to steal. Dried, shriveled, probably the size of a child's finger, what use was it?

When the lecture ended, there were questions, I asked Frayling where he thought the penis was. He laughed. He said he thought it was a prank, someone wanting some token of the biggest news story of the era. He said it was very unlikely to have been acquired, like famous paintings are sometimes acquired by theft from museums, by a wealthy collector. Frayling went on to imagine this collector in his Paris apartment, sipping brandy whilst looking at the Pharoah's member lying on a little pile of sand under a bell jar, or perhaps floating in some preservative liquid, bumping against the sides of a decorated jar. I was spell bound.

Avid readers of this blog might remember that once a question mark hangs over a penis in this way, I have to solve it, even if it takes years.

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Actually I was going to use the phrase "once a penis story fascinates me". Which would have been tidy, since the the word 'fascinate' is derived from the Latin word "fascinus"; a charm in the form of a winged penis Romans hung in doorways. To be fascinated is to be under a spell ... the spell exerted by a flying penis.

Anyway, lets get to the meat.

About a year ago, I stumbled over a story on the web. Tutankhamun wasn't the only great historical figure to suffer from penis theft. Apparently Napoleon Bonaparte lies in his magnificent tomb in Les Invalides, in an incomplete state. I read this, and immediately Christopher Frayling's image of the evil Parisian bone collector came alive, his mantlepiece jostling with jars, each containing the reproductive member of a once great man - Rasputin's penis and John Dillinger's were both of great size reputedly removed from their bodies after death. Does this collector have these too? What a coup though, Napoleon, the famous seducer, the passionate lover, what energy Napoleon had conquering half of Europe, one of the greatest generals who ever lived, that penis, however old, would surely still emit vigour?

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Like the saints - fragments of which were venerated in churches throughout Christendom, as though those pieces of bone or teeth or hairs provided a connection to the divine - like one end of a telephone line.

Maybe. Here is a picture of it. No evident potency there. It's a weird looking thing... that has suffered from lack of moisture and poor care. Looks more like a desiccated lizard than one of the most famous penises in history.

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The story apparently goes like this; at Napoleon's autopsy in 1821, the doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, removed the penis and gave it to the priest, Abbé Ange Vignali, who officiated at Napoleon's last rites. (As payment?? Because he asked?? We all know that many priests have an unhealthy interest in penises.) Somehow the penis found its way to Corsica, in possession of the priest's family, the Antommarchis, until 1916 when "a British collector" obtained it at an auction. It was described in the catalogue as "a mummified tendon taken from the body during post-mortem". Tendon?

This British collector then sold it to American A.S.W. Rosenbach, who loaned it to the French Museum of Art who put on show in New York in 1927, displayed on a velvet cushion. It was derided for its diminutive size, TIME magazine called it a "maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or a shrivelled eel", and it failed to impress the crowds. You can imagine Napoleon's face blushing in its tomb.

Rosenbach's collection was broken into small lots after his death, and somehow the penis found its way into a lot auctioned in Paris in 1977. Dr John K. Lattimer, a leading urologist and professor at Columbia University medical school, who bought curiosities, paid 13,000 French francs for it. He had it x-rayed and confirmed it was definitely a penis, although French officials apparently deny that it is Napoleon's.

Lattimer amassed quite a collection of weird things; vials of prussic acid used by Nazi generals to commit suicide, Hermann Göring's underpants, Abraham Lincoln's collar stained with blood from his assassination, Marilyn Monroe's bathing suit. He was eccentric but also highly respected as a clinician. He was chosen by the Kennedy family to examine how well the original autopsy of JFK had been conducted. Later was convinced Lee Harvey Oswald was the sniper, and to prove it performed demonstrations himself of how Oswald could have fired the three shots that killed Kennedy, over 80 or so metres within 8 seconds. Quite a feat of marksmanship, by Oswald and by Lattimer.

Lattimer died in 2007. Although she has sold much of the collection, from what I can gather, Lattimer's daughter is still in possession of Napoleon's member. She has had offers, one was so large it made the newspapers: $100,000USD. Why she hasn't sold is a mystery. She is either attached to it, so to speak, as a memento of her father, or thinks it is worth far more.

Who made that offer for a tiny shrivelled penis, I ask myself. Someone looking to build their collection?

Quentin Newark
Legs firmly crossed

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