23 Surreal Facts About Salvador Dalí

Reg Birkett, Keystone/Getty Images
Reg Birkett, Keystone/Getty Images

Salvador Dalí was one of the most famous painters of the 20th century. The Surrealist’s self-promotional antics and bizarre artwork made him an international celebrity early in his career, and there are still traces of him littered throughout pop culture. References to the melting clocks in his most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, have cropped up on everything from The Simpsons to news coverage of the 2015 New England Patriots's Deflategate scandal. His distinctive personal style is now so iconic that he has become a Halloween costume—one instantly recognizable by mustache alone.

The artist’s long career was full of unexpected twists, and even if you've seen his work, you probably don’t know how far-reaching his influence remains today, 115 years after he was born on May 11, 1904.

1. Salvador Dalí started painting when he was just a kid.

Dalí painted one of his earliest known works, Landscape of Figueres, in 1910, when was about 6 years old. The oil-on-postcard work depicts a scene in his Catalonia hometown, and now hangs in the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also found success relatively early; he created his most iconic work, The Persistence of Memory, when he was just 27.

2. He was not a great student.

Even from a young age, Dalí bristled at the confines of traditional schooling. He was bright but easily distracted, and more interested in doodling than studying. He began his education at age 4 at a local public school in his hometown of Figueres, but only two years later, his father transferred him to a French-speaking private school, “due to that first option having failed,” as the Dalí Foundation tactfully explains it. At his secondary school, he embraced his love of public attention by throwing himself down stairs in front of his classmates and teachers, as he wrote in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.

When he graduated, his father insisted that he go to the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, on the grounds that if he had to be a painter, he should at least be qualified to teach. He would be expelled from the school not once, but twice. His first expulsion in 1923 was over his role in student protests involving painter Daniel Vázquez Díaz, who students felt had been unfairly denied a professorship in the painting department. However, Dalí returned to school the next year, only to face expulsion again in 1926.

In his autobiography, Dalí explained that his second expulsion was the result of him refusing to submit to an oral exam, telling them, “I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them. I know this subject much too well.” This marked the final straw for his academic career.

3. He made himself hallucinate.

A portrait of Salvador Dalí in midair with chairs and cats
Dalí Atomicus, Philippe Halsman, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Dalí pioneered what he called the “Paranoiac-Critical” method, designed to help him access his subconscious. He described it as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical-interpretative association of the phenomena of delirium.” One of the ways he would access this delirious state without drugs or alcohol was to stare at a fixed object and try to see something different within it—much like you might see a shape in the clouds, as the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia explains it [PDF]. Or, he would try to keep himself between sleep and wakefulness, napping with a spoon in his hand and a mixing bowl in his lap. When he fell asleep, the spoon would fall into the bowl, and he would wake up. He would continue to do this in order to keep himself in a semi-conscious, dreamlike state, according to Dalí scholar Bernard Ewell.

4. He was obsessed with Sigmund Freud.

The Surrealist movement was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud, whose work was just beginning to be translated into French for the first time when the movement emerged in Paris in 1924. Dalí began reading Freud as a young man at art school in Madrid, and the psychoanalyst’s ideas about dreams and the subconscious had a profound impact on his work. “The book presented itself to me as one of the capital discoveries of my life,” he wrote about reading Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.

The feeling wasn’t exactly mutual at first. Freud considered the Surrealists "complete fools” and had little interest in avant garde art. But Dalí was determined to meet Freud. “My three voyages to Vienna were exactly like three drops of water which lacked the reflections to make them glitter,” the artist wrote in his autobiography. “On each of these voyages I did exactly the same things: in the morning I went to see the Vermeer in the Czernin Collection, and in the afternoon I did not go to visit Freud because I invariably learned he was out of town for reasons of health.” (Emphasis in the original.) Finally, Dalí set up an appointment to meet with the 82-year-old Freud in London in the summer of 1938. Dalí recounts that “we spoke little, but we devoured each other with our eyes.” This may have been less romantic than Dalí frames it; Freud had mouth cancer, and an artificial palate made it difficult for him to speak.

Nevertheless, Dalí showed Freud his painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus, the first painting he made entirely using his paranoiac critical method, as well as an article he wrote on paranoia. The psychoanalyst later wrote to Stefan Zweig, who arranged the meeting, that Dalí was an “undoubtedly perfect technical master” who forced him to reconsider his opinion of Surrealists.

5. The Surrealists didn't want Dalí.

While Dalí is considered a Surrealist, his fellow Surrealists—many of them communists—tried to expel him from their movement early in his career over his fascist sympathies. In 1934, the “father of Surrealism,” writer André Breton, called members of the movement to his apartment in Paris. His order against the painter read: “Dalí having been found guilty on several occasions of counterrevolutionary actions involving the glorification of Hitlerian fascism, the undersigned propose that he be excluded from surrealism as a fascist element and combated by all available means.”

Breton and his supporters were offended by Dalí’s depiction of Lenin in his 1933 work The Enigma of William Tell, as well as by the fascination he expressed for Hitler, who he later said “turned him on.” Furthermore, he had painted a swastika on the armband of the nurse in his painting The Weaning of Furniture-Nutrition, a detail his fellow Surrealists forced him to paint over.

The incident didn’t mark the end of Dalí’s dalliances with fascism. He later became a supporter of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, meeting with the general twice at his palace in Madrid, including to personally deliver a portrait of Franco’s niece.

6. George Orwell was not a Dalí fan either.

When the English critic and novelist reviewed Dalí’s autobiography in 1944, he did not hold back in his assessment of this painter’s character. Dalí admits to a number of amoral acts in the book without any show of remorse, including kicking his toddler sister in the head and pushing a boy off a 15-foot-tall bridge as a child. (The book is described by the Dalí Foundation as “an account full of truths, half-truths, and ‘falsehoods,’” so these events may never have happened.) Allowing that the painter was an incredibly skilled artist, Orwell was still horrified, and wasn’t afraid to call him out.

“One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being,” Orwell wrote in the essay. The writer, who traveled to Spain to fight with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, was also repulsed by the painter’s politics (or lack thereof). “When the European War approaches he has one preoccupation only: how to find a place which has good cookery and from which he can make a quick bolt if danger comes too near,” he mocked.

7. He worked with Alfred Hitchcock.

In the 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock commissioned Dalí to help him create a dream sequence for Spellbound, his 1945 thriller starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. “I wanted Dalí because of the architectural sharpness of his work,” Hitchcock explained in one of the extensive interviews he gave to fellow filmmaker François Truffaut in 1962. Hitchcock hoped that Dalí could bring some of the vivid imagery of his work to the dream sequence the movie called for, but the director got a bit more Surrealism than he bargained for. As Hitchcock told Truffaut, “Dalí had some strange ideas; he wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants! It just wasn’t possible.”

8. He also worked with Walt Disney.

In the wake of his work with Hitchcock, Walt Disney approached Dalí in 1945 about joining Disney Studio to work on an animated film called Destino, featuring a score by Mexican composer Armando Dominguez. Dalí had drawn up 22 oil paintings and stacks of drawings, and he and legendary Disney designer John Hench created storyboards for the film. But only eight months after they started, the project was shelved for financial reasons, with only 15 seconds of demo reel completed. (Disney and Dalí remained friends despite the hiccup.) In 1999, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, decided to restart the production. Animators at Walt Disney Studios Paris painstakingly translated Dalí’s original storyboards to create a film faithful to his vision. The 6-minute short was released in 2003.

9. He loved cauliflower.

In 1955, Dalí arrived at the Sorbonne in Paris for a lecture in a Rolls-Royce filled to the brim with what TIME magazine called “a quaint profusion of fresh cauliflower”—around 1100 pounds worth, packed to the roof. He proceeded to explain to an audience of 2000 people that “Everything ends up in the cauliflower!” The painter told journalist Mike Wallace in a nearly nonsensical interview in 1958 that the point of the stunt was that he had discovered “the logarithmic curve of cauliflower.”

10. He had an intense marriage.

Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala look up at one of his paintings.
Dalí and Gala look up at his painting The Madonna of Port Llegat, which the artist painted using Gala as the model for the Madonna.
Allan, Express/Getty Images

Dalí met his future wife, Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, who went by Gala, in 1929, while she was married to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. (Theirs was something of an open marriage, and they both regularly had affairs.) Dalí met Eluard in Paris and invited him and several other artists to visit him at his home in Cadaqués over the summer. Eluard brought Gala and their daughter Cecile there, and Gala and Dalí fell in love and became inseparable. Gala eventually divorced Eluard, and she and Dalí married in a civil ceremony in 1934, with the approval of Eluard, who remained on good terms with Gala.

Gala became Dalí’s muse, portrait model, and business manager. He even signed his paintings with both of their names, explaining in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí that “It is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Dalí bought Gala a centuries-old Catalan castle in the small town of Púbol in 1969, creating a retreat for her that he would only visit if he got her written permission. "Everything celebrates the cult of Gala, even the round room, with its perfect echo that crowns the building as a whole and which is like a dome of this Galactic cathedral,” he wrote of the home in his book The Unspeakable Confessions. When Gala died in 1982, the distraught painter broke the Spanish law prohibiting the moving of corpses without official permission, putting her in the backseat of his car to drive her from their home in Port Lligat to Púbol, where she had wanted to be buried. Dalí moved there after her death to be close to her. It’s now the Gala-Dalí Castle House Museum.

11. He appeared on game shows.

Dalí was a guest on several game shows during his lifetime. In 1957, he made an appearance on the show What’s My Line, serving as the unnamed guest whose career a panel of blindfolded guests had to identify. Despite host John Daly’s best efforts to rein in the artist, he proved to be a difficult nut to crack, since he tried to answer “yes” to every question, including “Do you have anything to do with sports, or any form of athletic endeavor?” He was ultimately identified by a final question about whether or not he had a “rather well-known” mustache.

12. He and Marcel Proust reportedly liked the same hair products.

Dalí’s gravity-defying facial hair became a topic of conversation when the artist appeared on a 1954 episode of The Name’s the Same. Host Robert Q. Lewis called the mustache "quite beautiful” early in the show, and when panelist Gene Rayburn brought it up later—“Are you kidding with the thing?” he asked, gesturing as if twirling a mustache—Dalí answered exactly how you might expect him to. “This is the most serious part of my personality,” he said. He then went on to explain that his facial hair had some literary influence. “It’s a very simple Hungarian mustache. Mr. Marcel Proust used the same kind of pomade for his mustache.” As for the physics of the thing, it was all in the pomade, he said. He declined to discuss exactly how he got his facial hair to grow to such insane lengths.

13. Dalí's mustache has its own book.

In 1954, Dalí published a book with photographer Philippe Halsman entirely devoted to his mustache, featuring 28 images of the iconic facial hair. Halsman and Dalí met in 1941 and collaborated for decades, creating what are still some of the most recognizable portraits of the artist, including Dalí Atomicus, featuring the artist suspended in midair along with several cats, an easel, a bucket of water, and a chair. Each page of Dali’s Mustache: A Photographic Interview presents a short question from Halsman, with answers from Dalí printed on the next page, below the photograph. The results are, as one would expect, often absurd. “Dali, what makes you tick?” one page asks, for instance. “My hairspring, of course,” Dalí answers. The photographs showed Dalí with a mustache twisted into an infinity symbol, dressed as the Mona Lisa, and using his facial hair as a paintbrush, to name a few examples.

14. His mustache remains intact to this day.

In July 2017, Dalí’s body was exhumed as part of a paternity suit brought by a woman who claimed to be his daughter. The exhumation proved the woman wrong, but it did yield one unexpected discovery: His mustache lives on. According to the forensic experts who saw the body, his trademark waxed 'stache has remained intact since his 1989 death. “The mustache preserved its classic 10-past-10 position," Lluís Peñuelas of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation told the Spanish paper El País (as translated by NPR). The doctor who embalmed Dalí in 1989 called it “a miracle.”

15. He created a painting for Rikers Island.

In 1965, Dalí was scheduled to make a visit to the prison at Rikers Island to give an art lesson to inmates. But on the day the lesson was supposed to take place, sickness confined him to his New York hotel room, and he canceled. Instead, he made the prisoners a painting, a Surrealist take on the crucifixion of Jesus. The painting, unknown to the outside world, hung near a cafeteria trash can in the prison until the 1980s, when it was put away, then rehung near the prison’s entrance where the inmates couldn’t access it. That spot proved more dangerous than the ketchup-splattered wall by the trash cans—in 2003, a group of prison officers stole it, replacing it with a cheap imitation. The officers were prosecuted, but the painting was never recovered. One of the thieves pointed fingers at his conspirator, an assistant deputy warden named Benny Nuzzo, saying that Nuzzo panicked and destroyed the painting after they committed the crime.

16. He wasn't above commercial work.

Dalí’s art doesn’t only appear in galleries and museums. He also did plenty of commercial work. (Fellow Surrealist André Breton nicknamed him “Avida Dollars,” or “eager for dollars.”) He created ads for De Beers Diamonds, S.C. Johnson & Company, Gap, and Datsun station wagons. (The Gap ad featured the tagline “Salvador Dalí wore khakis.”) Between 1938 and 1971, he created four covers for Vogue, and in 1945, one for Town & Country. In one example of his relentless self-promotion, he was even a celebrity spokesperson, shilling for brands like Alka-Seltzer and the French chocolate company Lanvin. Some of his commercial art endures today—you can still see his work in the Chupa Chups lollipop logo.

17. He designed swimsuits.

Dalí poses next to a model wearing one of his bathing suits.
Reg Lancaster, Express/Getty Images

Dalí occasionally moonlighted as a fashion designer, bringing some of his signature motifs to womenswear. He collaborated with Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli to create clothing inspired by his paintings, like a dress with drawer-like pockets inspired by The Anthropomorphic Cabinet, a shoe hat inspired by a photo Dalí took of Gala, and a lobster-print dress worn by Wallis Simpson in a Vogue photoshoot in 1937. (Dalí regularly put lobsters in his paintings, often using them to represent his fear of castration.)

He also designed a line of swimsuits for a clothing manufacturer in Wisconsin named Jack A. Winter. The creepy bathing suits (on video here) included a top that looked like a sandwich board and featured a giant pair of eyes, and a bikini that inexplicably came with an inflatable baseball catcher. The suits didn’t make it to market, but Dalí reportedly took the inflatables back to his home to use in his pool.

18. He almost asphyxiated at an art opening.

In 1936, Dalí had himself fitted for a deep diving suit in advance of the International Exhibition of Surrealism, a major London art show where his work would be displayed along with other renowned modern artists like Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Joan Miró, Rene Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp. Dalí planned to give a lecture in the diving suit while holding a billiard cue and two wolfhounds on leashes.

No one could hear his lecture, called “Some Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms,” through the airtight suit—which a mechanic had bolted him into before the talk—and a few minutes in, he began to suffocate. He tried to gesture that he needed help removing the helmet, but the audience took it as part of his performance and laughed. As biographer Meryle Secrest recounts in her book Salvador Dali: The Surrealist Jester, “The more he gesticulated the more they laughed and it took some time, during which Dali thought he would faint dead away, before, as [Surrealist poet] David Gascoyne explained, ‘we realized he was in some distress,’” and Gascoyne rescued him from the bolted helmet with a wrench [PDF]. (As with much of the artist’s life, there's a bit of debate over the exact details of the incident—Dalí himself said Gala and the poet Edward James saved him with a hammer, neglecting to mention Gascoyne at all.)

The incident certainly fit with the outlandish public image Dalí had cultivated. “I believe the Dalinian mythology which was already so crystallized upon my return to New York owed a great deal to the violent eccentricity of this lecture in a diving suit,” the artist later wrote in The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. The event was fictionalized in Michael Chabon’s book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which one of the characters rescues the artist from a similar predicament at a New York City cocktail party.

Being an exhibition full of Surrealists, Dalí’s stunt was hardly the oddest behavior on display that day. Painter Sheila Legge arrived at the show’s opening carrying a pork chop that quickly went bad in the June heat, and poet Dylan Thomas went around offering visitors teacups of boiled string.

19. He published a cookbook.

Dalí and Gala were known for throwing elaborate, bizarre dinner parties. At one, a fundraiser in Monterey, California in 1941, guests like Bob Hope and Alfred Hitchcock were asked to dress up as their own dreams. (Gala wore a unicorn’s head.) Dalí borrowed monkeys from the San Francisco zoo for the evening, and guests were served fish in satin shoes, followed by live frogs. The event was so lavish that, rather than raising money for refugee artists, as it was designed to, it actually lost money.

In 1973, Dalí released his own cookbook, Les Diners de Gala, a how-to guide to Surrealist cooking that featured some of Dalí’s favorite motifs, like snails, lobsters, and eggs. In keeping with the often sexual themes of his paintings, he also included recipes for an “aphrodisiac” course. The book was illustrated with photos of Dalí himself in front of banquets of food, his drawings, and some of his paintings, like his work Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds (1936). The rare cookbook was re-released by TASCHEN in 2016. His 1977 book about wine, The Wines of Gala, was re-released by the same publisher the next year.

20. He published a novel, too.

Published in 1944, Hidden Faces follows a group of aristocrats living in France before and during World War II. Dalí announced it with signature flair, saying that the “new times of intellectual responsibility” had prompted him to write “a long and boring ‘true novel.” The New York Times reviewed it under the headline “It's Boring, but Is It Art?” (A paywalled version is here.) “His sofa in the shape of lips showed more ‘intellectual responsibility’ than this,” reviewer Mark Schorer wrote in his scathing column.

Upon its re-release in 1974, other readers were more impressed. A Publishers Weekly review trumpeted that it “deals brilliantly with love and lovers, war and death, passions and perversions,” while the Observer's John Melly wrote that it is “so full of visual invention, so witty, so charged with an almost Dickensian energy that it's difficult not to accept its author's own arrogant valuation of himself as a genius.”

21. Sesame Street spoofed him.

Instantly recognizable by his trademark mustache, Dalí inspired a mustachioed Sesame Street puppet known as Salvador Dada. The Muppets have worked in a number of Dalí spoofs over the years, including in a 2015 special called The Cookie Thief, in which a few of the Muppets see a painting called The Persistence of Cookies at the Museum of Modern Cookie.

22. He built his own museum.

In the 1960s, the mayor of Figueres, Spain—Dalí’s hometown—asked the artist to donate a piece to the city’s art museum, Museu de l'Empordà. Instead, he declared he would donate an entire museum. He began refurbishing the Figueres Municipal Theatre, which was almost entirely destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, and turned it into the Salvador Dalí Theatre-Museum. The museum, with its Dalí-designed facade decorated with sculptures of giant eggs and bread rolls, officially opened in 1974, but Dalí continued to expand it up until his death.

He also lived there during the last years of his life. After his castle in Púbol was damaged by an electrical fire, he moved into an annex of the museum, the Galatea Tower (named after Gala) in 1984, largely withdrawing from public life until his death in 1989. After he died, he was buried under the theater stage.

23. His work is incredibly valuable now.

In February 2018, Sotheby’s put up for auction two largely unknown Salvador Dalí paintings, rediscovered within the personal collection of an Argentinean family. The artist had originally painted them for Countess de Cuevas de Vera, an aristocrat who split her time between France—where she hob-nobbed with artists like Dalí and Picasso—and Buenos Aires. They were painted in 1931 and 1932 and were passed down through the countess’s family. “These are the kind of painting that I do my job for,” Thomas Bompard of Sotheby’s told The Guardian before the works went up for auction, saying he felt “absolutely privileged to be the one to bring these gems to the market for the first time.” The two paintings sold for a combined $8 million.

Updated for 2019.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Discovered by accident in 1994, the cave paintings adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France are among the oldest and most beautiful figurative art in human history. About 36,000 years ago, the ancient artists drew lifelike beasts that seem to gallop, crawl, and frolic through the cave’s chambers. In one stunning triptych, 50 drawings of horses, lions, and reindeer cavort across 49 feet of limestone wall. The cave paintings even impressed filmmaker Werner Herzog enough to make a documentary (available on Netflix). Here are a few more facts about the Chauvet Cave paintings.

1. The Chauvet Cave paintings were discovered by three local explorers.

It was December 18, 1994. French cavers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire had spent the day exploring the Pont d’Arc caves in the Ardèche region in southern France. They came upon an array of fallen rocks and noticed a gentle woosh of air from beneath the rock pile. Prying aside the stones, they found an aperture and dropped down into a large chamber with a high ceiling that appeared to branch off into other chambers. Their headlamps illuminated several handprints and a red ochre painting of a mammoth on the wall of one chamber. At that moment, they knew they had stumbled onto a major archaeological discovery.

2. Chauvet Cave was formed by an underground river.

Replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc, also known as the Chauvet Cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, which is located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Subterranean rivers flowing through the area's limestone hills created Chauvet Cave, along with hundreds of other gorges and caverns in the Ardèche. Chauvet Cave is about 1300 feet (roughly a quarter-mile) long with 14 chambers branching off the largest room, the Chamber of the Bear Hollows—the first one discovered by Chauvet, Brunel Deschamps, and Hillaire. This chamber, closest to the entrance, features no cave paintings; flooding is thought to have washed away any artwork. The most decorated vestibules are farthest from the entrance and include the Hillaire Chamber, Red Panels Gallery, Skull Chamber, the Megaloceros Gallery, and the End Chamber.

3. The Chauvet Cave painters were Aurignacians.

Aurignacians, the first anatomically modern humans in Europe, lived during the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, between 46,000 and 26,000 years ago. (Aurignacian also refers to this time period.) Aurignacian culture is characterized by the first figurative drawings and carvings, the invention of a flaked stone tool called a burin used for engraving, bone and antler tools, jewelry, and the oldest-known musical instruments.

In addition to the Chauvet Cave paintings, Aurignacian animal and human figurines have been found in other parts of Europe. At the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered the oldest known Venus statuette, dating from 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, and some of the oldest known bone flutes from the same time period. In Southeast Asia, a cave in Borneo bears the oldest known figurative painting, created at least 40,000 years ago.

4. Ancient humans visited Chauvet Cave during two separate millennia.

A reproduction of a hand stencil found in Chauvet Cave
Picture taken on October 12, 2012 in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc of the facsimile of the Chauvet cave.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

According to paleontologist Michel-Alain Garcia in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, radiocarbon dating of organic materials in Chauvet Cave suggest people used the cave during two different time periods. In the first, about 36,500 years ago during the Aurignacian, artists drew the majority of the Chauvet Cave paintings. They brought wood into the cave and burned it to create light and charcoal for drawing. Then, for an unknown reason, the Aurignacians abandoned the cave for about five or six thousand years, and it was taken over by cave bears. In the second instance of human use, about 31,000 to 30,000 years ago in the Gravettian period, humans left behind footprints, scorch marks from torches, and charcoal, but no artwork.

5. Fourteen animal species are represented in the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The most common animals in the Chauvet Cave paintings are cave lions, mammoths, and woolly rhinoceroses; all coexisted with the Aurignacians in Europe, but are now extinct. Along with depictions of cave bears, the four species make up 65 percent of the species in the paintings. The other are bison, horses, reindeer, red deer, ibex, aurochs (an extinct wild ancestor of domesticated cattle), the extinct Megaloceros deer (also called the Irish elk or giant deer), musk ox, panthers, and an owl. The paintings are notable for depicting not just figurative representations of the animals, but actual scenes that reveal the animals’ real behavior—like two woolly rhinoceroses butting horns, and a pride of lions stalking a group of bison.

6. Non-animal themes also pop up in Chauvet Cave paintings.

Palm prints in red paint found in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

In the middle chambers of Chauvet Cave, several walls and overhanging rocks are decorated with red dots made by human palms and stencils of human hands. In the farthest galleries of the cave, five triangular representations of a woman’s pubic area are scratched on to the walls, and one picture of a woman’s lower body similar in profile to Paleolithic Venus figurines is drawn on a stalactite-like rock pendant. Anthropologists are not sure what they’re meant to symbolize.

7. A prehistoric child’s footprints were discovered in Chauvet Cave.

A single track of footprints measuring 230 feet long was found in the soft clay floor of the cave’s Gallery of the Crosshatching. Researchers analyzed modern European feet that were estimated to be roughly equivalent to those of European Early Modern Humans and determined that the track was probably made by a young boy about 4.5 feet tall. Scientists were able to date the prints based on the marks left by a burning torch on the roof of the gallery. “The child regularly wiped his torch on [the vault] above his path. These charcoal marks, dated to 26,000 years ago, seem to have been placed contrary to the direction of progress on purpose, as if to mark the way back,” Garcia writes. Two bits of charcoal were retrieved from the substrate and dated to a period between 31,430 years and 25,440 years ago.

8. The child might have had a pet dog.

The adolescent boy’s footprints are near those of a large canid—possibly a wolf. When Garcia took a closer look, he noticed the length of the middle digit was shorter than a wolf’s, a trait more typical of a domesticated dog. But in the 1990s, when Garcia made the find, the oldest undisputed fossil evidence of a domesticated dog dated back only 14,200 years before present.

A 2017 study that built on previous research, however, compared genomes of three Neolithic dogs with those of more than 5000 canines, including modern wolves and dogs. The researchers concluded that dogs and wolves split genetically sometime between 41,500 and 36,900 years ago, and a second divergence of eastern and western dogs occurred between 23,900 and 17,500 years ago. That puts the window of domestication between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago—the same time as the Aurignacian child and his very good boy were walking through Chauvet Cave.

9. Chauvet cave provided shelter for bears.

Outline of a cave bear head in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Larger than modern grizzlies, cave bears spent winters in Chauvet Cave for thousands of years before humans began painting in it. They left claw scratches on the walls and dozens of tracks and footprints in the floor. In the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, researchers have found more than 300 hollows (sleeping spots that bears wore into the cave floor) and dozens of bear tracks and paw prints, made after humans stopped visiting the cave. About 2500 cave bear bones and 170 skulls were scattered throughout the cave’s main chambers. When scientists first investigated the cave in the mid-1990s, they found a cave bear skull carefully placed on a large stone in the middle of a deep chamber, in a way that only humans could have done.

10. The cave also provided shelter for a lot of wolves.

The floor of the Brunel Chamber, directly south of the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, showed multiple wolf prints that indicated a large number of “fissipeds” (pad-footed carnivores) had trampled the ground. Bear prints were superimposed on the wolf prints, suggesting that the bears came in after the wolves.

Not only large carnivores occupied the cave—judging from the variety of bones, it was practically a prehistoric zoo. In addition to the wolf, ibex, and bear bones, prehistorian Jean Clottes reported finding those of foxes, martens (a kind of weasel), roe deer, horses, birds, rodents, bats, and reptiles. And, yes, he also found fossilized wolf poop, indicating the wolves probably went into the cave in search of carrion.

11. No one knows why the Chauvet Cave paintings were created.

Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc also known as the Chauvet cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

The purpose behind the Chauvet Cave paintings is a mystery, but some characteristics of the artwork may offer clues. Researchers have noted that the primary species depicted—cave bear, lion, mammoth, and rhinoceros—were not prey species that Aurignacians pursued for food, possibly suggesting that the paintings weren’t meant to ensure bountiful hunting.

A 2016 study hinted that the Chauvet Cave artists may have been recording contemporary events. Jean-Michel Geneste and colleagues proposed that a spray-like design in the Megaloceros Gallery was a faithful depiction of a volcanic eruption that occurred in the nearby Bas-Vivaris region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. If that is true, Chauvet Cave boasts the oldest known painting of volcanic activity, smoking the previous record holder—a 9000-year-old mural in central Turkey—by 28,000 years.

12. When Werner Herzog entered Chauvet Cave, he was overwhelmed.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog accompanied researchers into the depths of the cave system to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (available to stream on Netflix). Herzog’s grandfather was an archaeologist, and Herzog himself once earned money as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy a book about cave art. “Even though in a way I knew what was waiting for me because I had seen photos, I was in complete and overwhelming awe,” Herzog told The A.V. Club in 2011. “The mysterious origins of it—we don’t know why they were made, and why in complete darkness and not next to the entrance.”

13. You can visit a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The world-famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, not far from Pont d’Arc, were damaged by the exhalations of thousands of visitors after the cave was opened to the public in 1948. So, immediately after Chauvet Cave was discovered, scientists moved to protect the fragile paintings and closed it to the public; now, only scholars are allowed in during brief windows of time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see a simulation of the artwork up close. In 2015, a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings, dubbed the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, opened near the site of the actual cave. Engineers and artists faithfully recreated not just the dazzling paintings, but also the temperature, dampness, murk, and funky smell of the original.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER