Inside an eccentric Cabbagetown collection of dinosaur bones, taxidermied animals, human remains and other oddities
At the Prehistoria Museum and SkullStore Oddity Shop, Ben Lovatt collects curios from around the world. He’s a popular props supplier for Hollywood North’s biggest shows—and has even sold rarities to BTS, DeadMau5 and Drake
The first thing you see at the Prehistoria Museum and SkullStore Oddity Shop on Dundas East—after the signs at the entrance advertising “TAXIDERMY & SKULLS” and “PET MEMORIAL SERVICES,” after the silvery-cheeked hornbill named Maggie who greets you with raucous laughter at the top of the stairs—is a nearly 10-metre-long cast of a teenage T. Rex known as Tinker.
The owner-operator of Prehistoria/SkullStore, Ben Lovatt, bought Tinker from a friend who runs a dinosaur quarry in Wyoming. “The 10-year-old boy in me is always going to drool over the fact that I own a T. Rex,” says Lovatt, 35, as he leads a private tour of the museum. “At full price, for the cast, it’s $125,000 US. I didn’t pay that much. I got the floor model. Some people do that for sofas—I do it for dinosaurs.”
The 12,000-square-foot Prehistoria/SkullStore showroom is roughly divided between the museum on one side and the shop on the other. Since she’s part of the museum, Tinker the T. Rex is not for sale, although at the store you can buy a $125,000 Chisternon fossil turtle plate, a $275 ancient Celtic bracelet or a $5 bag of coyote teeth. The proceeds from the shop help subsidize the museum, which charges admission by donation. Lovatt considers this—making Prehistoria available to the public—his chief passion.
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The tour covers the breadth and depth of Prehistoria’s collection, every item of which Lovatt owns personally. “Basically,” he says, “this is my brain behind glass.” The museum’s artifacts include some of the oldest stone tools in history, made by our ancestor Homo habilis; a tablet bearing a cuneiform decree from Nebuchadnezzar II; an Egyptian sarcophagus from the Ptolemaic dynasty; and an altar to Baron Samedi, the Haitian vodou spirit of death and resurrection, where staff and visitors leave offerings of rum, cigarettes, and cash.
There’s also a World War II–era cargo-cult shield from New Guinea depicting comic-strip hero the Phantom, space-exploration items like cosmonaut gloves and a shuttle tire, and a display of pieces from the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, including a pair of pink lacy undergarments that purportedly belonged to Eva Braun. “So, when people ask what we have in the museum, we can literally say everything from a T. Rex to Eva Braun’s panties,” says Lovatt, who is Jewish.
Lovatt was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and his family moved to Scarborough when he was four. He loved nature and history—he remembers marvelling at a fossilized brachiopod he found on the shores of Lake Erie—but as a computer-savvy child, he always assumed he’d work in IT. Then, in his mid-twenties, he accompanied a friend to a reptile expo at Downsview Park and met a dealer with a table full of fossils. “I was like, You can buy a fossil?” he recalls. “That’s a thing that exists?” He spent $100 on a handful of items—a fish, a cocoon, a couple of dinosaur teeth—and was surprised when, later, as he showed the items off, friends offered to buy them. He wound up quadrupling his money.
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Lovatt started amassing a collection. The same fossil dealer—the late Jim Lovisek, who ran the Toronto Nature Centre—sold Lovatt more wares and schooled him in the basics of the industry. A tattoo artist told Lovatt that animal skulls were always in demand as models, so he began showing up, unannounced, at parlours around southern Ontario to peddle his wares. He travelled the country and the world, picking through estate sales and shuttered museums, reselling to collectors and institutions.
As he built contacts in the insular, old-fashioned world of oddities and antiquities, Lovatt realized that a lot of dealers still weren’t selling online, so he created a website and built an active social media presence. Eventually, offers started coming to him through email: a biologist’s son looking to unload a collection, an Inuk hunter with walrus bones to spare. Lovatt never received any outside investment; he just got a line of credit and kept plowing the profits back into the business.
Finally, in 2015, Lovatt was able to afford a brick-and-mortar storefront on Weston Road in Eglinton West. Since he had some items he considered too rare and important to sell, he devoted half the space to what he decided to call the Prehistoria Museum and the other half to the SkullStore. As real estate prices in the area rose and the building was slated for demolition, he was evicted, and five years later, he moved into his current space on Dundas East. “We went from 2,500 square feet to 12,000, but we figured the huge jump in expenses would be manageable because we’d have the walk-in traffic from Yonge-Dundas Square,” he says. “Then our grand opening was the first day of the lockdown.”
To weather the pandemic, Lovatt and his staff got creative. They prioritized online sales—almost all of the SkullStore’s items are available on its website—and poured money into Facebook ads, encouraging casual collectors to get creative with their interior decorating. It worked. “I was like, ‘Hey, decorate your quarantine shelter with something weird and unusual,’” Lovatt says. “Make your space your space.”
These days, foot traffic has picked up a bit, but online sales are still the bulk of the business. Lovatt now has seven employees, including a full-time shipping department, a skeleton mounter and someone who processes animal tissue. Prehistoria/SkullStore also hosts events—Lovatt just took over a 4,000-square-foot room on the building’s first floor, where he plans to host lectures on science and conservation, pop-up markets, and concerts.
SkullStore’s unusual merchandise has made it a draw for musicians: BTS, Deadmau5, Motionless in White and Shinedown have all been clients. Lovatt is friendly with Canadian performers Lights and Kiesza, who share his idiosyncratic passions, and Drake once bought an Athenian owl coin. Lovatt is also a popular supplier for Hollywood North, with shows like What We Do in the Shadows, Titans, American Gods, Vikings and Hannibal employing his services. “These same prop guys move around all the time,” he says, “so I know everybody. I get a call, and they’re like, ‘Superman needs a wolf skull.’”
Another income stream is Lovatt’s expanding pet-memorial sideline. Grieving owners occasionally reach out to him, asking if the SkullStore can taxidermy their deceased animals. But it turns out that stuffing someone’s beloved Persian is a lot harder than stuffing a zebra or a deer—a taxidermied pet, with its rigid pose and glass eyes, is always a little uncanny. So Lovatt settled on what is, apparently, a less morbid solution: mounting the pets’ skeletons, for between $750 and $2,000 a pop. “Assuming you don’t find a skeleton of your cat disturbing,” he says.
He estimates that his staff now render and mount a dozen or so pets a week, making up about 10 per cent of the business. They even did it for a former SkullStore employee whose Great Dane had regularly accompanied her to work. “It was very emotional on our end,” Lovatt says. “She would come in every day and have the dog lean against her, and she’d pat it on the head on her way to her workstation. So we prepped the dog in its favourite leaning pose.” When a friend’s animal-encounter company, Hands On Exotics, lost most of its business during the pandemic, Lovatt allowed its performers to move in—hence Maggie the hornbill. The live creatures and the dead ones seem to coexist peacefully.
The museum tour continues into the natural history section. There’s a skeleton of a donkey that died giving birth, its baby displayed breaching the pelvic cavity; a taxidermied black bear, rearing ferociously on its hind legs, that killed three boys in Algonquin Park in 1978; a hydrocephalic goat; a “mermaid” pig fetus without back legs; a pigeon and a rat stitched together (in reference to a Simpsons Halloween episode); and a bicephalic calf accompanied by the Laura Giplin poem “Two-Headed Calf” (“as he stares into the sky, there are / twice as many stars as usual”).
The museum also features an array of human remains—“The stuff you expect from an oddity sort of place,” as Lovatt puts it—including fetuses, shrunken heads, a preserved female reproductive system and an item simply labelled “Justin’s Toe.” That’s not to mention the skulls: elongated skulls from Peru, a cannibalized warrior skull from Borneo, an African pygmy skull, skulls of murder victims and executed prisoners, skulls with dwarfism and syphilis, and skulls from the Irish peat bogs, the Paris catacombs, and the Iron Age.
Lovatt is sensitive, he says, to the current era of repatriation requests, debates over cultural heritage and concerns about the treatment of human remains. “As long as you have a respectful context, I’m finding that the public’s a lot more receptive to it,” he says. “If you’re like, ‘Look how freaky I am; I’ve got some dead person’s head in my living room’—yeah, people aren’t going to be happy about that. But you come here and you see that it’s in the context of the history of the culture. There’s no freak show. We’re not making them a sideshow attraction. This is the scope of all of human history.”
Still, the SkullStore, as the name suggests, does indeed sell human remains—right now, among other things, you can buy a Tibetan necromancer kapala mask for $18,250 or some $60 preserved brain segments. Lovatt says he’s never received a formal repatriation request, but he occasionally receives inquiries from foreign governments about the provenance of certain objects, which he provides. He also says he’s careful to avoid certain items—it is illegal to buy and sell First Nations bones in Canada, for example, and the Māori people of New Zealand have a standing repatriation request for all remains.
When he was a teenager, Lovatt became severely ill. He developed Crohn’s disease, was placed on a battery of experimental medication, and has circulatory issues and chronic pain that persist to this day. This has given him some perspective on the nature of mortality. “I work with death all the time. Permanence doesn’t exist. People are like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t own a fossil.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s 60 million years old. If I’m lucky, I might live to a hundred. Do I own it? Does anyone own anything like this? You’re just the caretaker, and you’re paying to take care of it,’” he says.
“If you’re not going to take good care of it, then yes, there are issues with private ownership of this stuff. But, if you’re in a position to actually safeguard it and pass it on to the next generation, then really, that should be a responsibility.” When he dies, Lovatt plans to give his collection to the museum and hopes it will go on without him.
In the immediate term, though, Lovatt’s concerns are more practical. He wants to digitize the museum’s collection, create video exhibits and apply for a liquor license for the event space downstairs. And he’s still not safe from the insatiable beast that is the Toronto real estate market. Prehistoria/SkullStore’s current space is owned by a developer, and Lovatt assumes that it will eventually become another condo tower. But he’s sanguine about the situation. “It’s just another challenge we’ll have to face when the time comes,” he says. “In the meantime, we’re just trying to get the momentum up, get more people through our museum, raise more funds for what we do, and then, when we have to move, we’ll just try to get bigger and better.”
At the conclusion of the tour, Lovatt begins showing off his tattoos. On his forearm are Tutankhamun, the Egyptian boy pharaoh, and Gilgamesh, the king of Mesopotamian myth. “Both of them were striving for immortality, to be part of the heavens,” he says. “So, above them, I put”—he rolls up his sleeve—“Space Shuttle Columbia on its final flight.” There it is, on his upper arm: the Space Age’s most infamous disaster. “This is from the frame of the foam hitting the wing. This is the moment that doomed them. But all of them died in the service of something greater.”
Finally, Lovatt removes his bright-green dinosaur-print Hawaiian shirt to display his massive back piece. On it, a skinless human, stripped down to muscle and sinew, stands in the middle of the Tree of Life. The tree is stylized as a DNA double helix, with, on one side, dinosaurs dying in agony as an asteroid slams into the earth and, on the other, mammals rising to take their place: a snarling sabre-toothed cat alongside early humanoids inventing the first tools.