Flanking the front door of Ryan and Regina Cohn’s home are two urns holding dead topiaries. Clever touch.
As premier purveyors and collectors of oddities, the Cohn’s inhabit a small but growing community of individuals who are passionate about alternative antiquities. Together they founded The Oddities Flea Market, Ryan as the “creative genius” (according to his wife), Regina as the business brains and beauty.
What, exactly, do they collect? While some of us gather, say, old coins and Norman Rockwell prints, they tend toward death masks and Victorian era replicas of medical deformities
Safe to call them one of Westport’s more memorable and unique couples.
So unique, in fact, a quick perusal of his Instagram made me a bit nervous about entering their home. The creepiest thing in my home is the stuffed animal my son won at a carnival. Would I have the stomach for pitti cherubs with grimacing faces protruding from their midsection? And what about the Cohns themselves? Do they drink from chalices and snack on exotic fruits? Do they own a pet rat? Do they own more than one? Are they going to make me see their pet rat collection??
Minutes later I’m very much enjoying their company in the living room, sipping cold water from a glass beneath which Regina places a spiderweb printed napkin (humor!). They’re entertaining, engaging, and not at all the pale, unnerving individuals that people (…me?) might expect given their unconventional occupation.
Ryan’s telling me about the spectacular shells arranged in a glass-front 18th century Napoleonic cabinet. Shells are one of the first things he collected as a child, in addition to wood-dwelling creatures which used to be alive. “Natural history specimens,” he states.
These were the gateway finds which propelled him into his near-obsession with skulls, artifacts, and eccentricities.
He hosted “Oddities” on the Discovery channel for six years, charming viewers with episodes such as “Teeth on a Stick” and “No Guts, No Gory.” He was also an accessories designer for Ralph Lauren, where he honed his expertise in silver-smithing and refurbishment, including refurbishing “Lipschitz’s personal bags.”
Now, he’s considered one of the country’s finest experts on restoration and appraisal for high-end collectors.
The Cohns’ met 10 years ago when Regina, then an executive at L’Agent Provocateur with no proclivity to peculiarities, reached out to purchase one of his Kapala skulls (“skulls of monks adorned from respect, you wouldn’t know it was a skull at a glance.”) After inviting her to dinner, ostensibly a “sales dinner,” they fell in love and soon had a reality show wedding, episode titled “Creepy Sophistication.”
And the skull? “I own them all now,” she quips.
Their home is filled with some of his favorite pieces, some borderline-disturbing for the uninitiated. But their most ghoulish items (Victorian-era anatomical waxes meant for both medical study and discouraging risqué behavior, Victorian effigies with human hair and teeth) hold court in their Brooklyn bar, “House of Wax.”
(Of note, The House of Wax collection was originally compiled in the mid-1800s for an exhibition hall in Berlin, Castnan’s Panopticum. It opened in 1869, then interest waned and it petered out in 1922. It was packed up and moved into storage in Munich. When Ryan learned about it in 2015, he snapped up every last wax model of infected body parts. Buying the entire of contents of a home or collection is not uncommon for him.)
He diffuses any… well, some… discomfort their belongings may cause by grounding them in their contemporary reality and making light of today’s misinterpretation.
For instance, the medical atrocities on the House of Wax Instagram feed: “We see the historical significance of these models. They pertain to early medicine, they’re teaching tools,” he explains, “We don’t really need these things today because we know how to deliver a baby and cure diseases.” Seen through this lens of education, they’re no longer models of horror; they are models depicting anatomically correct layers of the body.
And the haunting effigies? “Death masks, or memento-mori, are a form of remembrance.” During the Victorian age they were made in honor of loved ones. Our ancestors had no idea their precious memories might freak out future generations.
“Some artifacts have a dark history,” Ryan continues, “but rather than exploit them, we should understand their history and importance.” He appreciates the works for the role they played in understanding the unseen and describing the unknown.
We walk into a side room with a medical (educational) sculpture on full display, showing bone, muscle, and skin in unflattering biological hues. Neo-classical painting of monks, skulls, samples all set against the backdrop of a grandmotherly floral wallpaper. “It was in the house when we moved in,” Regina exclaims. “We kept it because we thought it was funny!”
Yet sometimes there’s dissent in paradise. Regina, who married into his passion, admits, “Some things I don’t like” and points to a ghoul in the cabinet. “It’s signed!” exclaims Ryan.
“I still don’t want to look at it.”
Before leaving, they showed me the old chapel in the backyard of their home, a major selling point for the Cohns. They painted it black, then affixed one of Ryan’s three steeples from his collection. It’s used for storage, mostly, and Regina maintains a room in it.
As Ryan walks me to my car, he complains about the drought. “My whole yard is dying, but I guess everyone’s is.” I glance back at the dead topiary. I was wrong about that one, too.