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In the Market for a Leech Jar?

Online antiques dealer has one--and other unusual medical finds.

November 09, 2000|STEVE CARNEY | carneysteve@hotmail.com

A 60-year-old prosthetic hand. A tonsil guillotine with ebony handle. A "fine and decorative 1830s Staffordshire leech jar." Who says you can't find everything on the World Wide Web?

Alex Peck of Charleston, Ill., has been collecting and selling medical and scientific antiques for two decades and in December decided to take his 19th century scalpels and specula to cyberspace.

"This thing called the Internet came along, and it really changed the way I do business," said Peck, 53, whose Web site is at http://www.antiquescientifica.com.

"I used to travel a great deal" to medical collector trade shows, memorabilia conventions and other events, Peck said. "I found my travels weren't as productive as they had been 20 years ago, not to mention the airport hassles.

"You'd carry big knives, amputation kits--they're not going to let you carry that on the plane," he said. So he'd check his collection, with "$30,000 to $50,000 worth in your suitcase, and you pray it's going to be there."

Peck, who comes from a family of doctors, used to sell real estate and deal in general antiques while getting graduate degrees in Greek and Roman history from the University of Illinois. About 1979, he decided to combine his interest in medical and scientific history with his profession, and he began dealing and collecting only antiques in those genres.

His Web site offers tips on spotting fakes, short historical blurbs about the items and several pages displaying his wares. Among his most prized holdings are a Confederate military surgeon's uniform, worth about $50,000, a doctor's cane that comes apart to reveal bottles and a stethoscope and a rare mint condition 1830 lithotomy set, with instruments for breaking stones in bladders, worth about $14,500.

And, showing how far medicine has come in 170 years, he also offers antique obstetric, gynecological and surgical equipment--such as the numerous amputation kits in his collection, which were given as graduation presents to 19th century doctors. "A typical doctor would rarely do an amputation," Peck said, "as long as he managed to stay out of the Civil War."

The leech jar, standing 15 inches tall, with decorative flourishes and "Leeches" in gold lettering, is worth about $8,500 and is described on the site as "a most desirable bloodletting artifact and a magnificent display piece."

"It's real dramatic. These were really advertisements" for inside apothecary shops, he said. "It would hold a day's supply of leeches. A person would see it and know they have leeches available."

He said the Web site brings him buyers and sellers who never would have located him otherwise.

"It's another avenue. You want to have as many avenues leading your way as possible."

"To me, it's been a business lifesaver," Peck said. "You can update your catalog instantaneously, and it's available all over the world.

"It does take a lot of time," he admitted. "I have no idea how much time I spend getting the site to where it is.

"I probably average about five inquiries a day, and it's continually growing," he said. And the site got a bump in activity in the spring, from people buying unique presents for medical school graduates, and "newly minted doctors wanting to buy their preceptors a token of appreciation."

He created the site himself, using Microsoft's Front Page program. And though he pays $318 a year to his Web hosting company, Hostway.com, he's eliminated the $3,000 to $4,000 he used to spend on advertising, and he saves money on the travel he no longer does.

"I'm quite happy to be sitting at home, communicating with people all over the world," he said.

Or not communicating, if he prefers--saving the work for later and enjoying his 25-acre farm. "If it's a nice day, I'm outside. That's the beauty of it."

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Steve Carney is a freelance writer.

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