As a nod to Halloween, Beth Meyer, who owns a rock and crystal store in North Fort Myers, Fla., placed a human skull inside a glass display case there and surrounded it with quartz towers and other crystals.
But Ms. Meyer, 62, who meant to use the skull only as a “conversation piece” and did not really want to part with it, put a “really high price on it,” $4,000.
Still, the skull drew attention to her store, Elemental Arts, in the Paradise Vintage Market.
On Saturday morning, while Ms. Meyer was unpacking vintage clothing and high-end glassware at the store, a deputy with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office came in to question her about the skull. It is a misdemeanor in Florida to knowingly buy or sell human remains.
“We’re working hard to see if there was a crime committed,” said Carmine Marceno, the county sheriff. “When a human skull ends up in a store, it’s alarming.” The office will then decide whether to refer the matter to the office of Amira Fox, the Florida state attorney whose jurisdiction includes Lee County.
Samantha Syoen, a spokeswoman for Ms. Fox, said on Tuesday that the office had not received the case.
Ms. Meyer said that she knew when she put the skull on display that it was from a human. But it was an anthropologist, Michelle Calhoun, who saw it in the store and reported it to the sheriff’s office, according to an incident report. Ms. Calhoun told a deputy that she was certain that the skull belonged to someone who was Native American. Efforts to reach her by phone on Monday were immediately unsuccessful.
Sheriff Marceno said that the skull, which looked to be about 75 years old, lacked signs of trauma or foul play but the medical examiner’s office was further investigating the matter.
Phone messages and emails on Monday to the District 21 Medical Examiner’s Office, which serves Lee County, were not immediately returned.
Ms. Meyer, who is also a managing partner of Paradise Vintage Market, said that she acquired the skull last year when she purchased a storage unit that had belonged to an elderly man who was ill. She said she buys more than 100 such units each year as part of her work, and often does not collect any names or contact information from the sellers.
“We never know what we’re going to find in the storage unit,” Ms. Meyer said. “But this was probably the most interesting thing we’ve ever found.”
Ms. Meyer said that a quick Google search did not turn up any federal statutes that barred the sale of human remains, so she decided to put it up for sale. “I did not look at any Florida statutes,” she added.
Maybe she should have.
Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, the director of the University of Florida’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, said that she was not surprised to learn that a human skull had been listed for sale.
Dr. Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist who has examined hundreds of skulls throughout her career, said that, earlier this year, she saw an oddities market in Orange County, Fla., selling what it said were real human remains. “Most people aren’t checking the code all the time,” she said.
In fact, according to Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest School of Law who has reviewed all the relevant state statutes, said that Florida is one of eight states where selling human remains is “expressly illegal.”
It is against federal law to purchase or sell the human remains of Native Americans, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, said Jennifer Knutson, president of the Florida Anthropological Society.
After Ms. Meyer met with the sheriff’s deputy on Saturday, she said, Ms. Calhoun came back to the store. She explained to them why certain characteristics of the skull, including the eyebrow region and the formation of the teeth, led her to believe that the skull had belonged to a young Native American female, Ms. Meyer said.
During their meeting, Ms. Calhoun said, “Beth, if it’s Native American, then it needs to be in a ceremony for burial,” according to Ms. Meyer, who added, “It would be so interesting to be a part of that.”