SASAKTOON -- The family of a Saskatoon tattoo artist whose skin was preserved after his death says they are in danger of losing possession of the irreplaceable artifacts.

In 2018, the skin bearing the tattoos that covered nearly all of Chris Wenzel's body was surgically removed after his death and framed by an American company that specializes in the process.

Wenzel's preserved skin was displayed at the studio he founded, Electric Underground Tattoos.

But according to a GoFundMe page launched by a family friend, the business was hit hard in 2020 after tattoo studios in Saskatchewan were forced to shut down because of COVID-19.

The studio never recovered and the landlord locked the doors due to unpaid rent "and took possession of all the items in the studio including Chris' remains," the fundraising page says.

Leanne Thompson-Hill, a friend of Wenzel’s and the organizer of the GoFundMe, told CTV News the total amount owed is $24,753.

Thompson-Hill said she emailed Round Table Management, to ask if they could buy the remains separate from the rest of the seized items.

“I was told that Chris's remains would be going up for auction,” she said. “They are in Calgary right now, they have given us a grace period to try to get them back.”

“The sad part is something like that, tattoo preservation, it's so rare, it’s a rarity, and there’s lots of collectors that would want something like that. And yes, it is true, you could get a lot of money for Chris's remains. Is it unethical? Absolutely,” she said.

Company responds

“From the beginning, Roundtable has been sensitive to this family and the tragedy they have faced since they lost their dad and husband, and then were faced with a pandemic,” COO Rick Court said in a statement to CTV News.

“Electric Underground stopped paying rent in January 2020. We tried to reach the owner from January-July and did not get a response. Again, we tried to be sensitive to the circumstances this family was facing.”

Court said they heard from the owner in July who said she would be reopening and would work out a plan to pay rent.

“We then did not hear from her for a few months and her store did not reopen.”

Roundtable took possession of the property in September and cleaned out the store in November, sending a letter to the owner notifying her of their actions.

The company hasn’t heard from her since November and she hasn’t asked for any of the items from the store, including the skin, Court said.

Legally, the company can only deal with the original owner of Electric Underground and they welcome further discussion, he said.

Unclear legal issue

Wenzel’s niece Nicole Ballantyne says the family isn’t interested in the rest of the seized items — they only want the skin back.

“To try and put money on that, and to put a value onto it, like that is disgusting. You can't. That is someone's skin,” she said. “The landlord wants to withhold something like that, that's kind of, I don't know how low a person can get.”

“That's all we want, that's all [the family wants], bring my dad home. Give them back, that's ours.”

The $35,000 fundraising goal would cover the cost of the unpaid rent and outstanding expenses related to Wenzel's gravestone.

Once the costs are covered, any remaining money will be donated to create an art scholarship in his name, according to the GoFundMe page.

Kim Osemlak, an attorney with W Law Group in Saskatoon, said legally, the issue is whether the remains are considered property or not, and in this case there’s no clear-cut answer.

“If they are a property, then [Round Table] would have the right to auction them off and recover the proceeds towards the rent arrears,” Osemlak told CTV News.

Osemlak said there is a legal prohibition on selling bodily items like organs, but skin is not one of those.

“There's different gray areas, especially with this case where the skin has been processed and it's been preserved,” said Osemlak.

“The question is, is this still human remains or is it something else?”

Osemlak said a determination would be decided on a case by case basis and at this point there’s nothing stopping the remains from being sold at auction, but the company could be liable for damages if it's found that they didn't have the lawful ability to do so.