This Man Wants Your Most Haunted Objects

Inside a former synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Tony Oursler, 67, has built an extensive private collection of historic material related to magic, spirituality and the occult. The artist, who’s known for installations that combine video, sculpture and projections, has both an artistic investment in and a family connection to illusionism. His grandfather Fulton Oursler was a mystery writer and magician who delighted in exposing scammers he believed were weaponizing the craft.

What began five decades ago as a few folders of slides and fliers has grown into an apartment-filling archive encompassing color theory, UFOs, automatic writing and more. “The material I have is a barometer for people’s belief systems,” Oursler says. On a recent afternoon, several boxes of spirit photos, seance drawings and manuscripts were due to be shipped to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where they’ll be included in the forthcoming exhibition “Conjuring the Spirit World: Art, Magic and Mediums.” The archive also inspired a series of installations by Oursler related to fairies, crystals and historic hoaxes in the recent show “Smoke & Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida.

The collection: Ephemera related to the occult, spirituality, pseudoscience and technology.

Number of pieces in the collection: Between 3,000 and 5,000.

First purchase: “In the 1970s, I was taking art classes at Rockland Community College [in New York State]. Someone came in with a Kirlian photography machine, which produced something like aura photography. I kept a photo and, from then on, I kept other unusual things, like cult-related fliers that were often handed out to young people on the street at the time.”

Most expensive: “An album of rare spirit photos taken during seances by William Walker of the Crewe Circle, a well-known spiritualist group in the early 1900s. They were around $14,000.”

Least expensive: “A Polaroid of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a glass structure in Clearwater, Fla. I got it on eBay for $7.”

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