Hubert Burda Media

Strange Tusks Ahead

Call it the New Taxidermy, as the world of preserving exotic beasts emerges as a new art form, thanks to Darwin, Sinke & Van Tongeren.

Meet Jaap Sinke, 40, and Ferry van Tongeren, 46 — artists who are giving traditional taxidermy a twist. Instead of the usual stuffed deer shoulder mounts and dusty owls you see in log cabins, the duo (who call themselves fine taxidermy artists) create incredibly covetable animal sculptures. More than just mere studies in bestial anatomy, these explosively beautiful forms of taxidermy are increasingly becoming billionaire collectors’ new playthings. As it is, they already count royalty and celebrities alike as clients.
The two friends founded Darwin, Sinke & van Tongeren in 2011 and painstakingly hand-craft and build each piece in their Netherlands-based workshop (unlike the sort of mass production you see at Europe’s taxidermy factories). They also use only animals that comply with national and international legislation.
Whether made with lion cubs, peafowl, cockatoos or even iguanas mounted on fine European antiques — sourced personally by the pair — a piece can command up to $30,000. Custom work, on the other hand, ranges all the way upwards. “The sky is the limit,” Sinke reveals as the work can be extremely intricate and time-consuming. A prime example: 10 dancing tigers.
Fine Taxidermy Art is…
Sinke (S): The new, highly skilled taxidermy of flamboyant rare animals. Combined with the right antiques, it makes for natural romantic art objects.
Where do you get inspiration for your artwork?
S: From 17th-century Dutch master painters of birds and animals, such as Weenix and Hondecoeter. At that time, many European explorers headed to the East and brought back with them all those “strange” animals. Painters in this era would portray the creatures in a special way where they could capture their many features in one single picture. To do this, they had to put the animals in unreal poses to show as many features as possible. This is what we do with our taxidermy work: Show off.
If your art could speak, what would it say?
S: “I’m eternally gorgeous.”
Why Darwin, Sinke & van Tongeren? Is it named after naturalist Charles Darwin, or is there a third unseen colleague?
Van Tongeren (VT): We added Charles Darwin’s name [to the firm] as a source of inspiration — he’s an advisor behind the screen! Truth is, he doesn’t show up a lot and we get advice by reading his books instead!
What drew you to the profession?
VT: We share a love for animals and an interest in Dutch 17th-century art. We also have the same ambition to make things beautiful. We had spent 13 long and successful years in advertising, which we didn’t find satisfying anymore and we wanted to create something new. I was travelling around the world with my family when the taxidermy idea came to me.
S: He called me while on this trip of his and told me the plan. Instead of thinking he was crazy, I was very enthusiastic.
What excites you about being taxidermists?
S: We love everything about it. We have completely different lives now. In the taxidermy process, we are surgeons, sculptors, painters and to a certain degree, even hairdressers — but that’s not all. Whenever we are not working on the animals, we travel around Europe to find the best antiques for our objects.
VT: We love going to auctions, fairs and antique shops.
How did you learn the craft?
VT: I knew of a very good taxidermist in the Netherlands, Erwin van Zoelen, but he was not that enthusiastic when I first asked if he would teach me the craft. In fact, he said no. I stalked him for weeks and offered to work with him for free for a whole year in return for him teaching me everything. It was this offer that convinced him I was serious and he took me on. After that, I started working at the Dutch Museum of Natural History, doing taxidermy work for its scientific collection. Working there gave me the opportunity to study their large taxidermy collections and I learnt every technique worth knowing. We use all these different techniques for our own collection.
Techniques such as?
S: We work in an old-fashioned style in which we build our own animal bodies from scratch instead of buying them from the factory. Factory-made bodies are already provided shapes which is why normal taxidermy looks more or less the same. Making our own bodies is hard work and demands sculpting skills and talent. But it gives us the freedom to create and we can shape the animal in any possible pose a bird or animal could do alive.
Describe a typical production process.
S: After an idea comes to us, we do studies by drawing the muscles for certain poses. Finding the deceased animal is crucial too; it is delivered after we go through the export paperwork. We skin it and get rid of all its flesh, thin, wash and then tan it for a month. Then we wash it again and dry it, followed by blow-drying with compressed air to get some volume back. Finally, we sculpt the body into the pose we want.
VT: It’s the pose that can make it very difficult. Not the animal.
S: Next, we put the skin back on, sew it up, create eyelids, put eyes in and form our desired facial expression with special clay shaped under the skin. Pins are placed in the mount to fix everything for the drying process, which takes several weeks or months for larger animals. After drying, we paint — a very precise skill. We also put a lot of effort into sourcing the antiques we use as a base. Everything then comes together in one monumental piece.
Birds are a regular feature in your works. Why is that?
VT: Indeed, we do use a lot of birds because they have so much grace, colour and expressive features, such as big tails and colourful beaks.
S: But that is not the only thing we like. We also did one with many snakes crawling into one big ornament and are working on some lions now.
Most exotic animals you’ve worked on so far?
VT: Toucans, monkeys and lions.
 An animal you’d like to work on next?
VT: A black panther.
S: Mine would be a tiger.
What types of European antiques do you pair them with?
VT: There is no specific time or age we are looking for. We choose what we love. For instance, 18th-century standing clocks, tea stoves from late 18th-century England and the Netherlands, wood-carved ornaments from Schwarzwald, and red coral from the beginning of the 20th century.
Europe is the traditional taxidermy hotspot. How about Asia?
VT: Yes, Europe is a hotspot but we sell most of our work in the US. Recently, there is more demand from Asia. We are in the midst of shipping two works there and have received a request to do some custom-made pieces for a client in the Philippines.
S: We have a very specific audience: People who can appreciate our artworks and afford it. Both demographics are on the rise in Asia.