Edward Meyer has spent more than half his life circling the globe to buy the strange, eccentric and most incredible items for Ripley’s Entertainment.
He’s on the road about 60 days a year and has traveled to more than 50 countries acquiring everything from buildings constructed out of toothpicks to a picture of the Last Supper made from dryer lint.
Meyer has purchased more than 20,000 items on eBay, at auctions and in person to fill the 34 Ripley’s Believe It or Not! odditoriums and two traveling shows. That’s quite a feat considering each museum has 500 exhibits.
His mission is to continue the legacy of founder Robert Ripley, who started the eclectic collection after traveling to 201 countries. The entrepreneur created Ripley’s Believe it or Not! syndicated cartoon, radio and television shows, which featured odd facts from around the world.
“It’s all about human curiosity and creating the wow factor – that’s OMG in today’s jargon,” said Meyer, 60. “Before I make a purchase, I always ask myself if Ripley would have bought it.”
Meyer was recently in the news for buying the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy. His $4.8 million bid was more than double his past highest acquisition, the $2.3 million he paid in 1985 for John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls-Royce.
His official title is vice president of exhibits and archives but Meyer has myriad responsibilities. He’s a collector, archivist, buyer, negotiator and PR man for Ripley Entertainment, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Two million media outlets worldwide covered the Marilyn Monroe purchase so he was right on the money when he chose to gain attention with that dress.
John Corcoran, director of Guinness World Records attraction department, said last month he told Meyer something about the company that he did not know.
“That was the first time that happened since we started working together 33 years ago,” said Corcoran. “He is the ultimate authority on our brand and has actually procured more of the Believe It or Not! artifacts in our collection than Robert Ripley. He is our living database. I hope the IT department has figured out a way to back up his brain.”
Meyer was just a college kid when he was hired to catalog Ripley’s collection of cartoons and artifacts during a summer break from his library science studies at the University of Toronto. His boss, Alec Rigby, asked if he thought they could make money off the collection. Meyer gave him a plan to integrate the archives into the Ripley exhibits and three days later he was offered a full-time job. He spent the next six years going through boxes and cataloging Ripley’s collection of oddities.
The collection ranged from the weird to the wonderful. Many of Ripley’s best artwork was created from ordinary household objects like Popsicle sticks, dog hair and jelly beans. Ripley was big on shrunken heads and every museum still has one on display. He also liked animal oddities and Meyer estimates he’s purchased more than 100 two-headed cows during his career.
He works 11 hours a day, five days a week, plus another 4-5 hours on weekends and has only missed 10 days of work following his cancer surgery in 2005. That’s in 38 and half years. His wife of 39 years and their two children put up with his treasures displayed throughout their Winter Park home.
Meyer admits he doesn’t sleep much. In fact, he recently woke to figure out how to create a special crate to ship Marilyn Monroe’s rhinestone-studded dress to Florida. He wants to gain possession in Florida because the sales tax is 3 percent lower than in California, where he purchased the dress. That’s a lot of money to dream about.
“Most people would say I am a workaholic—might be true, but if you love what you do it isn’t work,” he said. “I don’t know if I have ever had a pure holiday because I always mix business with pleasure.”
The best part of his job is not just collecting artifacts but the stories from the remarkable people and places he’s traveled. His favorite is the artist who engraved the Lord’s Prayer – all 275 letters, plus punctuation – on a hatpin. Meyer discovered that the Birmingham, England artist, Willard Wigan, is dyslexic and has no formal education. He turned his hobby of microscopic art into a career and uses the proceeds to buy jewelry.
“I’ve never seen a man wear so much jewelry,” Meyer said.
His most unique purchase was a two-trunked elephant he found during a trip to Africa. The elephant’s skin was shipped to Miami, where a taxidermist stuffed the head. Meyer said he’s most proud of purchasing 160 feet of the Berlin Wall. He arrived in Berlin three days after the wall fell and brought a Swiss Army knife to chip off a chunk of the wall. Instead, he negotiated with the government and ended up with 16, 10-foot sections.
Every year he comes up with a contest. One year, he asked people to mail in odd items without boxing them. Meyer said the mailman insisted on bringing them into his office and enjoyed every delivery. A contestant glued a McDonald’s hamburger, apple pie and french fries to a paper plate. It made it through the mail and won first place.
Meyer has written, edited and published more than 50 books and researched more than 160 television episodes for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Someday, when he can find the time, he intends to write a book about his adventures.