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He Keeps the Skeletons Out of the Closet : Paleontologist: New Yorker capitalizes on decade at the American Museum of Natural History. Now he sells everything from alligator skulls to seashells.

January 08, 1995|TIM SULLIVAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Henry Galiano walks through the maze of basement rooms that make up his work area, waving offhandedly at the human skeletons, fist-sized insects and desiccated lizards.

"We sell everything," says Galiano, a self-taught paleontologist who took a passion for dead things and a decade of experience at the American Museum of Natural History and began a retail career in the bone business. "Everything I like."

What began when Galiano sold his personal rat- and pigeon-skeleton collection at a flea market eventually became Maxilla and Mandible Ltd. (the names come from the upper and lower jawbones), The Natural History And Science Emporium.

For 10 years, Galiano has been the retail bone king of Columbus Avenue, selling everything from $34-an-inch alligator skulls to $2 seashells in the yuppie heart of Manhattan's Upper West Side.

His store is a cluttered enclave of fossils, butterflies, beetles and, of course, bones.

They hang from the ceiling and are mounted on the walls. They fill boxes and glass cases. Looking for an impala, sable, monkey or a beaver skull? No problem. They are here, and much more.

There also are human bones, mostly back a little behind the counters, though a small, wooden box sits on the floor stuffed with ribs for $5 apiece. A top-quality skull costs $875, a vertebral column is $445.

They are in the store's catalogue, too, where the "man" section is tucked neatly after "llamas."

The man behind this cornucopia is a 43-year-old East Harlem native who discovered his calling on childhood visits to the natural history museum, just a couple blocks away from his shop.

Galiano went to art school, but honed his taste through the museum's collections, partially built up through the peripatetic traveling, hunting and collecting of Teddy Roosevelt.

Galiano works at an enormous, antique roll-top desk in a suitably cluttered basement room. There's a monkey skeleton on a shelf, a human fetus in a bottle and a large, fossilized fish on the floor that he says is 40 million years old. There's also a child's skull in a glass box on his desk, the brain case enormously distended from water inflammation.

Because of his concerns for the natural world, there are plenty of things Galiano won't sell. He doesn't deal in endangered species, and often passes historically valuable fossils to museums.

"Henry's an unusual guy in the commercial world," said Dr. John Maisey, a scientist at the natural history museum. "Most of them are interested in making money. Henry's more interested in helping scientific effort--he also likes to make money."

While Galiano is vague about his profits--"I'm not getting rich, I make a living"--he has an obvious knack for sales.

This is, after all, a man who saved to open the store by putting bottles under the tap and marketing what came out as New York Bottled Water. He even got New York restaurants to buy the suddenly upscale drink, he says.

His people skills served him well in the business' early years. In those days, the folks who are now his suppliers, many of them trappers, fur farmers and African game wardens who need to cull their parks, didn't understand why anyone would want the remains of dead animals.

"I used to have to go around the world and explain myself," Galiano said. Now, that he's established, people come to him--like the French medical school, for example, that offered to swap part of its bone collection for repairs on its remaining skeletons.

Repair work is an important part of the business. Down in the work rooms, the store's small staff prepares specimens using chemicals, hand tools and bugs.

In one area, a gray-haired, cigar-smoking man sat hunched over a table, gently scraping a lizard with what looked like a dental instrument. Elsewhere, in a cluster of aquariums, hundreds of carpet beetles ate away the remaining flesh on other lizards.

"Oh yeah, it's very effective," Galiano said as he walked by.

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