Jamaica Inn's stuffed ferret, bear and squirrels appeal for new owner

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The Independent Online

Fans of an eccentric collection of stuffed animals and other curiosities housed in the legendary Jamaica Inn in Cornwall have launched a campaign to prevent the unique display from being broken up at auction later this month.

Richard Taylor, a librarian who lives across the border in Devon, is mounting an internet campaign to find a single new owner for Mr Potter's Museum of Curiosities - and has even written to Britain's most notorious stuffed animal expert, Damien Hirst, to seek support.

The collection is based on the works of a Sussex taxidermist, Walter Potter, who died in 1918. But it has grown over the years to include a grizzly bear that featured in the TV sitcom Steptoe and Son and the ferret that roamed the trousers of Compo in Last of the Summer Wine.

The 10,000-exhibit "museum" was last threatened with being broken up and sold to America in 1986 but was saved by John Watts, who put it on display at his pub, Jamaica Inn, on Bodmin Moor, the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name.

However, Mr Watts is now retiring; the collection's resident taxidermist has died and the curator is also close to retirement, prompting the decision to sell.

Efforts to find a single buyer over the past year have proved unsuccessful so Bonhams is due to auction the collection at the inn on 23 and 24 September.

Jon Baddeley, one of its specialists, said: "We are estimating [a total value of] £250,000 but I wouldn't be surprised if it was much higher. What is a pair of fencing frogs worth? We're getting interest from America, Japan and across Europe."

But Mr Taylor said the 6,000 animals and other curios such as Victorian cards, African spears and jukeboxes, should not be dispersed.

"It would be a terrible shame if it is broken up because it is unique. It doesn't try to educate or preach about the environment. It just has a strange air of mystery about it," he said. "Surely it can't be right to sell off this wonderful British eccentricity as individual lots to America - where there's already been a great deal of media interest - when our national lottery is quite willing to stump up £11m for a Raphael painting, not even of British origin?"

Walter Potter, the son of an innkeeper, taught himself to preserve birds and animals when he was a boy and his first specimen was his pet canary, which is now more than 160 years old.

By coincidence, the early examples of his craft were also displayed in a pub, his father's inn in Bramber, Sussex, and he became famous for arranging his animals in anthropomorphic scenes such as the Squirrels' Club, where 18 squirrels are seen sipping port and playing poker. Taxidermy became his career as he accepted private commissions to preserve people's pets.

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