At 96 Years Old, Barney Smith Is Putting His Toilet Seat Art Museum Up For Sale
Are you in the market for 1,318 toilet seats, each one intricately decorated with everything from Troll dolls to Pez dispensers to a wasp nest? You’re in luck.
Barney Smith, the man who created the Toilet Seat Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, is retiring at 96 years old and is putting his entire collection up for sale.
But he wants to be sure that whoever buys it keeps it intact.
“Instead of a person buying it and breaking it up and selling it one individual toilet seat at a time, I want them to display it as I am now,” he told Travel + Leisure. “I don’t want anyone to buy it who will break it up.”
The museum sits in Smith’s garage and is filled with toilet seats that tell the story of his life. There are religious-themed seats, including a nativity scene that drew criticism from a visitor.
“He said the very idea of the Baby Jesus on a toilet seat I cannot oblige, but I said it’s in good standing, I’m trying to testify to the world,” Smith recalled.
There are Texas-themed seats, seats that mark historical events including the death of Michael Jackson and the Challenger explosion, seats that show places Smith visited with his wife, and a special seat with his wife’s nursing tools to commemorate her death in 2013.
Smith’s favorite is one decorated with the words to the Rudyard Kipling poem, “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted.” Smith began to recite the poem from memory — ”When Earth's last picture is painted, And the tubes are twisted and dried, When the oldest colors have faded, And the youngest critic has died” — and then stopped.
“I can keep going and recite the whole thing,” he said.
The collection first got started more than 50 years ago, before the idea of making a museum ever entered Smith’s head.
“I was with my dad going hunting, and I needed something to put a deer antler on, I needed a board to put an antler on,” he said. “I picked up a toilet seat and said I’m going to use this toilet seat to put my deer horn on. That’s what got me started.”
Then he transitioned to other decorations.
“I ran out of deer horns but had another toilet seat,” he said. “I’m a master plumber, so I decided I’ll put these washers that came out of faucets.”
He began creating seats with plumbing tools and expanded from there. The idea to open a museum came later, when Smith was having a garage sale.
“A fella came by here, and I had out some of my artwork, and he said he was an artist, and said ‘you’re doing real good on artwork,’” Smith recalled. So he took the man into his garage to show him the rest of his toilet seats — he only had 127 at the time.
“He said, ‘What are you doing with all these toilet seats hanging up in there?’ and I said, ‘That’s my hobby,’” Smith said. “Well, he went to a TV station in town and said, ‘You need to contact this guy so you can go film what’s in his garage.’”
Smith didn’t want to go on TV at first, but “they twisted my arm so bad, said we need to show it to the world, so I said, ‘Well, come on down.’”
The segment aired on a Friday in 1992, and soon other TV channels were calling to do their own segments. After that “my telephone was ringing off the wall,” Smith said. “People saw it on TV, they said we want to come and see it, and I said, ‘OK, the cat is out of the bag, I’m going to get me a guest book and let them sign their name and what they think of my museum.’”
The Toilet Seat Art Museum was officially born. It’s free to visitors, and they’re asked to arrive between 1 and 3 p.m. and to call first (210-824-7791). He attracts around 2,600 visitors a year and has guestbook entries from 81 countries.
Smith said visitors are almost always very impressed with his collection.
“They say this is really awesome, this is wonderful, they say, ‘I’ve been to the Alamo and I’d rather see toilet seats than the Alamo,’” he said. “So I’m running the Alamo some competition. People say, ‘The world needs to see this.’”
But now, Smith said, the flow of visitors is wearing him out and he’s ready to pass the seats on to someone else.
One company with some business in the toilet seat world is helping out. The Clorox Company set up an online gallery of his work to help him find a buyer.
Smith is optimistic that he will find the right person.
“I’m hoping someone will come along and give me X number of dollars for my collection and keep it as a museum,” he said. “I’m hoping I can live long enough to see the day.”