The Story of... Gunther von Hagens and his collectible body parts



2015-06-26 12:06:12

The Story of... Gunther von Hagens and his collectible body parts

Eight years after 'Dr Death's' first-ever TV autopsy, he is again pushing the boundaries of taste...

A human organ is hefted onto a tabletop, before a cheering 500-strong theatre audience, an apparently reluctant camera crew and 1.4m late night television viewers.

"He wanted to educate but he couldn't do it. People weren't really learning anything," said a fourth year London medical student, after watching German doctor Gunther von Hagens perform the first public autopsy in the UK in 170 years.

Nevertheless - despite warnings from Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy that he could face arrest under the section 11 of the Anatomy Act 1984 - Von Hagens successfully completed his TV autopsy, uninterrupted by Metropolitan Police officers who watched him closely from the audience.

Controversial... Gunther Von Hagens

Eight years ago, the global furore over whether a public autopsy should be shown on television seems almost quaint. Von Hagens has since performed a number of autopsies on television, including 2005's Anatomy for Beginners and a 2006 documentary on terminal illness.

Meanwhile, the spectacle which so gripped audiences in 2002 lives on in the controversial Body Worlds exhibition. Showcasing cadavers preserved with Von Hagens 'plastination' technique (preserving bodies with plastics), the expo has appeared everywhere from London to Las Vegas.

And, as if touring exhibitions and Von Hagens' regular TV appearances don't illustrate how much times have changed over the past decade, a new macabre development has emerged. A smoker's lung, a piece of hand, a slice of human head... All are now for sale via mail-order.

Following the successes of his Body Worlds expo and invented plastination technique, Von Hagens - or "Dr Death" as he is also known - has launched a new venture: selling body parts to buyers with prices ranging from around 600 to 15,000.

Many of the offerings aren't too far beyond of the realm of what collectors already buy. For instance, 600 can buy you a cross-section of a fish. As shown by this taxidermied giraffe's head, deceased animals are no strangers to the auction block.

 A plastinated body in Von Hagens' Body Works expo

Yet Von Hagens isn't neglecting his main area of expertise. Alongside the preserved pieces of duck, giraffe and crocodile is a slice of human head (priced at 1,500), smokers' lungs (for 3,600) and an entire length of human body (for $15,000).

Only scientists and medical experts are eligible to buy the pieces, according to Von Hagens. Yet the lines between collectors and institutions are often blurred - and it could only be a matter of time before the pieces fall into the hands of private collectors and auction houses.

After all, there has long been a thriving market for the macabre among collectors. Only last month, Paul Fraser Collectibles sold the Albert Pierrepoint Collection, comprising detailed notes and a number of personal belongings owned by Britain's longest-serving chief executioner.

For now, Dr Death continues to establish his unique and controversial place in history, employing 200 workers in his Plastinarium factory in Brandenburg, east Germany - and his life and works will no doubt be of increasing interest to collectors with a love of the macabre...

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