The Collections Master

The Collector/Curator


Bill Jamieson. Photo credit: James Ireland © 2009,


Hearing of Bill Jamieson’s death yesterday was about as shocking an occurrence as can be imagined in this business. Still a young man, truly, and a man whose importance to collecting and “spreading the word” had yet to be fully felt, his passing leaves a hole at least 10X larger in the business than the enormous hoard of attractions he leaves behind. I first met Bill (or Billy, as many knew him) care of the late director of the Mutter Museum, Gretchen Worden (another who died way too young and at the height of her accomplishments), who asked me whether I knew “the guy in Toronto who collects shrunken heads.” I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of a wild ride for me with “Billy.”


While in our years of friendship, I wasn’t in Bill’s company as much as I’d like to have been (though there was plenty of contact otherwise), the one time I was at his place typified for me our near 20 year friendship. His condo – an entire floor of an old factory/warehouse in a gorgeous neighborhood in Toronto – you got to by elevator, which opened into what felt like a gallery in the wildest Smithsonian oddities hall you could imagine. Tribal head trophies, feathered capes, shrunken heads, South Pacific weaponry, all of it making for a Ripley’s-like experience if ever one could be had outside those establishments. The entire vast condo space was arrayed as the museum show it truly was, as Bill had some few years prior purchased the entire Niagara Falls Museum (the last museum extant which had been in direct competition with Barnum’s American Museum).


And true to Bill’s vision, his vast condo had been transformed into the museum of his and every collector’s dream: every square inch cased or arrayed with attractions, the entry hall given over entirely to floor-to-ceiling amazement. And then you reached the far end, where his condo dropped and dropped, into the recesses of the building. As he put it, in his end of the condo deal, he’d gotten the old freight elevator shaft, easily large enough to hold a truck, now outfitted with an equally vast wooden spiral staircase. And that staircase took you not just into the bowels of his collection but through even more layers – step by descending step – of cased attractions. At bottom were all the freak animals, the oddities, and his “live-in taxidermist” and restorer. Nothing halfway about Bill Jamieson.


So here he is, a guy who, by this humble collector’s estimation, had it all. And had a ton & ½ of it displayed. And he was miffed. Good naturedly, but still. At me. And why? Because in my first trip to Toronto since I’d met him, I’d set up to stay elsewhere and hadn’t hit him up to stay there with him and the collection. Honestly, I’d thought it rude to ask, to put him out by asking the favor; stupid me: It was rude not to expect his boundless generosity. Of all the things – and his many generosities that followed – I’ll remember that best. And with the fondest sadness.


James Taylor



'Bye Billy


Now, it has to be explained that Billy Jamieson was no ordinary collector, specializing as he did in Egyptian mummies, antique shrunken heads and all sort of bizarre ethnographic art and artifacts. His condo is literally filled with human skulls, bones and macabre accoutrements. With a long history of supplying the bizarre tastes of rock stars and celebrities, his company, Jamieson Tribal Art, had recently been working on a television series for the History Channel featuring items from his collection and his adventures as a collector. Let's just say that he has definitely led the life-less-ordinary and leave it at that.


Sue Prent - Green Mountain Daily



Billy Jamieson is a classic rebel. He is a modern-day treasure hunter, an ancient and tribal arts collector and dealer. Part P. T. Barnum, part Indiana Jones, he searches the world for these oddities and curiosities and the historical stories behind them.



This week Toronto suffered a massive loss with the untimely death of William Jamieson. Known to his friends as Billy, Jamieson was one of the world's foremost collectors of tribal art and ancient artifacts. He died at his home in downtown Toronto on Sunday.

The Ministry of Artistic
Affairs was scheduled to visit Jamieson's remarkable museum-home in October of this year but now sadly mourns the loss of this most interesting of gentlemen.

In addition to being a highly respected dealer and collector of objects from cultures around the world, particularly the South Pacific, Indonesia, Africa, and the native peoples of the Americas, Jamieson was well-known for his collection of oddities and curiosities. Reflecting his fascination with the macabre, he will be perhaps most remembered for the real human shrunken heads he collected from the headhunter and cannibal cultures of the South Pacific.


Jamieson traveled the world for most of his adult life and through these fieldwork missions gained direct experience with many native cultures, such as the Shuar of Ecuador and Peru and the Irian Jaya of the West Papua province of Indonesian New Guinea. These experiences lead to work consulting for the National Geographic Society on their educational series about headhunting, human sacrifice and cannibalism. He was completing the first season of a series for the History Television when he died. His collection of information, hand crafted tribal weaponry, ceremonial clothing, real human shrunken heads and other artifacts of the Shuar is one of the greatest depositories of information about this tribe in the world. He also leaves behind a remarkable archive of ethnographic material about the native cultures of North and South America, the Dayak of Borneo, the Naga of the Highlands of India and the Batak of Sumatra.

In 1999 Jamieson purchased the Niagara Falls Museum which was established in 1827 but had fallen into disrepair and closure by the time of his acquisition. Nine Egyptian mummies that had been in the museum’s collections since 1861 were included in the massive catalog of materials. After Jamieson sold these Egyptian artifacts to the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, it was confirmed that one of the mummies was that of the missing Pharaoh, Ramses I. After this confirmation by Egyptologists, Ramses I was repatriated back to Egypt where a museum was built to house the mummy in Luxor.

A highly social character who radiated friendly energy, Jamieson hosted annual Halloween parties that were legendary in Toronto for the manner in which they brought together disparate downtown social networks; transvestites, artists, curators, Rosedale collectors, horror film production crews and aficionados, celebrities, historians, lawyers, financiers, real estate moguls, fashionistas, dancers, prostitutes, bikers, beer drinkers and hellraisers would pack his sprawling 8,000 square-foot multi-level condo during these raucous parties, 100% of whom were dressed up in elaborate costumes.

Bill Jamieson was a truly unique individual. Kind, creative, successful, adventurous, open-minded, non-judgmental and highly enthusiastic, he followed his curiosity to the most remote jungles of the world and returned with stories and tools for learning that he shared generously with us all. His unexpected death is a shock to the Toronto art community of which he was an intimate ally, member and supporter, and we are all reeling from the terrible news.

The Ministry of Artistic Affairs wishes to send his family and all who loved Billy our most heartfelt condolences.

By Randy Gladman






Master of the Macabre" Bill Jamieson, Toronto Canada, standing next to a Nazca Mummy from Peru (in case). Jamieson who usually exhibits at least one shrunken head solved the problem of continuously explaining the process of "head shrinking" to visitors as he augmented distribution of pamphlets detailing the process. (not to be attempted at home)


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