The Secret Art Gallery Where Millionaires Buy Dinosaurs and Rare Objects

Meteorites, spacesuits and Hollywood memorabilia: Everything can be bought at Theatrum Mundi, if you have the cash.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

If you had hundreds of thousands of euros to spend on bizarre and exclusive living room decor, where would you go? In the Tuscan town of Arezzo, Italy, there’s a place just for that. The Theatrum Mundi, or “World Theater” in Latin, is an invite-only gallery offering its extravagant but discreet services to millionaires from all over Europe.

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Self-described “collector of the impossible” Luca Cableri, 49, opened this space in 2015. He let VICE take a peek behind the gallery’s always-drawn curtains, a place where the lights are dimmed and there are absolutely zero clocks to be found. Cableri himself is kind of a mood, too – a true dandy, he welcomed us in his “permanent twilight zone” wearing python trainers and a perfectly tailored outfit.

First, he showed us around the highlights of his collection – Wolverine’s original claws from the X-Men movies, which he tried on with frightening ease; dinosaur fossils, T-Rex teeth, an original Star Wars lightsaber, one of Harry Potter's wands and an authentic Soviet spacesuit. Then, we got to talking.

Luca Cableri posing Wolverine's claws. Behind him, a helmet from the movie Jurassic park and a photo taken by NASA in space.

VICE: Hi Luca, let's start with the basics. What is Theatrum Mundi?
Luca Cableri:
The idea for Theatrum Mundi comes from so-called cabinets of wonders, collections set up by nobles and scholars from the 16th century until the Enlightenment [in the 17th and 18th centuries] to amaze guests and leave them speechless. 

With this project, I wanted to do the same: surprise those who enter, excite them. The objects on display come from distant places. I look for them, find them and show them in a new context.

Basically, I move objects from a niche market into the wider luxury market. For instance, you might come across a fragment of a meteorite in a Namibian market; here, I place it in a frescoed room next to other amazing objects. It's like taking a picture of a zebra on top of Mount Everest. If you know how to bring different worlds together, you don't create chaos, you create wonder.

Inside Theatrum Mundi, the original prop from the movie "Alien".

How did it all start?
I come from a small town near Gorizia [in northeastern Italy]. I studied law and started buying and selling my first items for fun at street markets. Then, after graduating, I ended up working at Christie's in London. This experience opened my mind to the real dynamics of the art world

And from there you basically ended up selling dinosaurs. How did you find so many fossils?
You’d think that dinosaurs belong in museums, but the world is full of fossils. Some are very rare, some are extremely common. 

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In areas like Wyoming or North Carolina in the United States, there are plenty of them; the same goes for Mongolia. The problem is getting them out of the ground because the remains of the same dinosaur can be 500-600 metres apart.

Left: a Martian meteorite. Right: a T-Rex tooth worth up to €80,000.

But is it legal to dig out a dinosaur fossil?
It depends. In some states in the U.S., it is. In Italy, it is not.

OK. But aren’t there rules around importing them?
There are international laws, implemented by Interpol, which are very strict. That’s especially true for archeological artefacts, but I don't deal with this kind of thing very often, only a couple sarcophagi in the past. In principle, all objects that are more than 50 years old need authorisation for both import and export. We buy everything from abroad. We just have to request a “certificate of free circulation” from the Italian customs authorities.

What about spacesuits and meteorites? Where do you find these things?
In all corners of the world. For a Soviet spacesuit, for example, you’d go look for one in Korolyov [the centre of Russian space operations] or Moscow. For meteorites, you’d go to Namibia or Morocco and get in touch with people who collect them.

The hardest part is always reaching the source. If we take meteorites, for example, the first time I tried to buy one I went to a fair. From there, with a little patience, I got to talking to the people who take their Jeep and travel to the desert to look for them.

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So there's someone who looks for meteorites for a living and then calls you...
It took years to form these connections, but yes.

Top: Sokol spacesuit used on board of the Soyuz space ships; bottom: meteorite.

Moving on to buyers, who is your typical client?
Without naming names, my most frequent clients are eclectic collectors. They have a nice house and want to add a slightly unusual object to it, like a triceratops head, which always looks good, or a Batman suit for the office. They usually are very successful businessmen, but also important names in fashion and cinema. 

How much do these objects sell for?
The price ranges from thousands of euros up to several million. If you want a fragment of a Martian meteorite, you’ll spend about €1,000 per gram [by comparison, gold costs about €50 per gram]. In general, these objects are increasing in value every year – it’s a growing market. 

Do you know where the objects end up?
In some cases, yes, they send us pictures.

But where do you put a piece of Mars?
There are many beautiful solutions [laughs]. One client, for example, displayed three meteorites on a divinely lit wall. Very elegant. Another buyer from France put his very large dinosaur in a castle. An Indonesian client chose his living room. They're great conversation-starters with guests.

Cableri posing next to the bike from the movie "Easy Rider" and under one of the many taxidermied crocodiles fixed onto the gallery's ceilings, this one from the 1800s.

How do you select objects for the gallery? Is it based on clients' requests?
Unless I receive a special request from a client, I choose the objects that I am passionate about. They must be unique, extraordinary. I travel around, visit exhibitions, read books and if something piques my interest, I look for it.

Every object has its own story, that's what I communicate to buyers. Usually, they already know a lot about them – even if, recently, there have been a lot of newly rich clients who just buy for the aesthetics.

How do you authenticate the objects?
Well, that’s a different story for each category. Let's talk about meteorites. There are three main types: lunar, Martian and others with an aesthetically interesting shape. 

When a meteorite is found, we cut off 20 grams and send them to Washington. There, there’s a lab that analyses the piece and says if the meteorite comes from the Martian surface, the moon or somewhere else. If all goes well, the rock is certified and entered in the international meteorite bulletin [a list of all known meteorites]. 

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For objects like spacesuits, there are specialists who verify originals. Unfortunately, there are a lot of fakes out there. For film memorabilia, I always ask for the Certificate of Authenticity (COA). However, I end up always using two or three trusted contacts for that. It's a jungle out there.

Original costumes from various Hollywood blockbusters.

What are your favourite objects to collect?
When I was a kid, I dreamt of being an astronaut. For me, spacesuits are crazy. 

Right now, I am mostly interested in American cinema. When I brought these objects to international exhibitions for the first time, people turned up their noses. They didn't consider them art. I think that's a big misunderstanding. Many objects, like Captain America's shield or the alien in Alien, were designed by real masters.

What sells best?
Natural history sells itself – there’s already an audience for it with very solid international auctions. A T-Rex skeleton sells at Sotheby's for up to €30 million. When you’re selling dinosaur fossils, you can add a zero to the price tag and still sell.

Scroll down to see more pictures of the Theatrum Mundi gallery:

A fossil of a large ammonite, one of the first living beings on earth, found in Marocco.

Original props from "Robocop" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles".

Cableri opening the door to his very own cabinet of wonders.

Luca Cableri's office, tucked away behind a secret door concealed by a library off the gallery's main room.

Luca Cableri in his office.

One of the listings at Theatrum Mundi, a skeleton of an Allosaurus Jimmadseni dinosaur which is 55 percent complete.

Some of the objects displayed in the main room of Theatrum Mundi.

An original reproduction of the character of Mystique from the X-Men saga.

Tagged:

Art, Hollywood, wealth, dinosaurs, auction, Meteorite, rich people, spacesuit

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