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Ilse Koch, the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald," was said to have been obsessed with objects made of human skin.
Photo-illustration by Josue Evilla  

The drum was part of a rummage sale, a motley, seemingly scavenged pile of storm-ravaged junk haphazardly displayed along the paint-peeled walls of the house on Piety Street: a pair of andirons, some chipped flowerpots, a pair of stretched-out Allen Iverson jerseys. Nothing anyone would want.

“How much for the drum?” Skip asked the man standing there with his back turned.

The sound of Skip’s voice turned the guy around. He was tallish but bent over, probably in his forties, but that was hard to gauge owing to dark bubble shades covering his eyes. Over a greasy New Orleans Saints T-shirt, he wore a thin black leather jacket with the sleeves rolled up to reveal arms covered with what Skip immediately recognized as prison tattoos—blue, black, and blotty. Tattooed onto the guy’s stomach, visible between the edge of the too-small T-shirt and the empty belt loops of his saggy jeans, it said NOLA.

This seemed redundant, Skip thought. The way he looked, like some demented brigand with a hacked-off Mohawk haircut, and the way he talked, in that incongruous river-rat amalgam of off-angled Brooklynese with the occasional flowery southernism thrown in, where else could the guy be from but New Orleans?

“How much for the drum?” Skip repeated.

“Can’t you read?” the man replied, pointing to a nearly illegible handwritten sign saying $100—TAKE IT ALL AWAY.

Skip had no need for any of the trash splayed across the sidewalk. “I’ll give you $100 for the drum alone. Keep the rest of the stuff and sell that for $100.”

“Take it or leave it,” the man finally said, pointing at his sign.

That about tore it from Skip’s perspective. He’d made his best offer. Walking away, he heard the man’s voice behind him. “Wait a minute,” the man said. “I’ve seen you around here. You’re a neighbor. That’s a whole different story.”

It was then, as Skip remembers, that the man, now exceedingly friendly and introducing himself as David, David Dominici, reached under a table and pulled out a small lamp.

“Check it out, neighbor. This isn’t part of the other deal. It’s separate,” Dominici said, flashing a gap-toothed, jack-o’-lantern smile. “This is going to be right up your alley. I guarantee it.”

The lamp in his hand, Skip’s collector’s impulse, his reverence for an object seen within the proper context, a talent cultivated in backdate-magazine stores, guitar sales rooms, and a thousand hours on eBay, clicked in. A quick scan revealed what appeared to be a Beaux Arts–style parchment lampshade (the plastic lamp fixture, from China, was of no interest) most likely made in the middle-twentieth century. Ten inches across the top, a foot at the base, composed of panels, eight around, the shade was in far-from-perfect condition, but not too bad. Skip’s first thought was he might be able to use it in his guest room.

Then something caught his eye about the lampshade frame, the way the thin metal rods were held together. When he was running his guitar shop back in Jersey, Skip often handled vintage German instruments, Höfners and Framuses for the most part. Both companies made a high-quality product, but many players complained about the so-called Popsicle-stick structure of the guitar neck. Rather than a single piece, the German necks were composed of thin wood layers sandwiched together with glue. The necks never warped, but to some ears they didn’t resonate like the single-piece models. This made the German guitars sound, Skip sometimes thought, a little dead.

One other thing about the German guitars was the solder. While the solder on American-made Fenders and Gibsons looked silvery and a little blobby, German solder had a darker, bluish appearance, with a liquid, almost oily sheen. The lampshade solder looked like that.

Now Skip began to grok it. The material of the lampshade itself. The warmth of it. The greasy, silky, dusty feel of it. The veined, translucent look of it. “What’s this thing made out of, anyhow?” he asked.

“That’s made from the skin of Jews,” Dominici replied.


“Hitler made skin from the Jews!” Dominici returned, louder now, with a kind of goony certainty.

“Believe me, neighbor,” said Dominici, a half-smile on his bumpy face. “Hitler made skin from the Jews. It is a historical fact!” He pointed at the lampshade Skip held in his hand. “You want it? $35. That’s a good deal.”

A human-skin lampshade for $35. That was a heck of a deal, all right.

Skip didn’t believe it. Not at first. His wife told him there was “no way that thing” was going on any lamp in her house. Not with that story attached to it, true or not. At that point Skip could have thrown the lampshade away, tossed it into one of the piles of trash that had been rising all over town since the storm. But he didn’t throw it out. He let it sit there, in a closet, festering.


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