Collectibles: Stones and Bones

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Insects, fish, palm fronds, footprints, eggs, even feces: If they were in the right place at the wrong time millions of years ago, they had a chance of becoming fossils. Today, fossils are prized both as decorative items and as links to long-extinct flora and fauna. “There’s a market for almost any minuscule category that you can imagine,” says Henry Galiano, owner of Maxilla & Mandible, a fossil gallery in New York City. “There’s a whole market for amber. You can collect it from different countries. Some collect spiders [trapped] in amber, or flies, or lizards, or frogs–that’s just amber.”

As with any collectible item, provenance will influence the value of a fossil. However, in the case of a fossil, provenance does not cover only previous owners, it refers also to the circumstances of its discovery and the scientific information collected on site that describes it and places it in context. Dig sites often attract poachers who harvest the bones, stones, and artifacts before scientists can determine what it is they have uncovered. Because of such thefts, reputable dealers and auction houses regard undocumented fossils as worthless. “I don’t sell a fossil unless I have a lot of information about it,” says David Herskowitz, a natural history specialist who works with the I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers in Beverly Hills. “I need to know its background.”

Those in the market for fossil skeletons, which draw some of the greatest prices, need to know that the term “complete” assumes a nuanced meaning when applied to these items. Most are far from intact when found, and that is especially true for Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs. Sue, the T. rex skeleton sold at Sotheby’s in 1997 for more than $8 million, commanded that sum because roughly 85 percent of its original bones were recovered. No other T. rex has been nearly as complete. Barnum, a T. rex skeleton sold at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles in May, was a more typical example, with about 20 percent of its bones intact. It fetched $93,250.

But the T. rex is just one of a variety of skeletons appearing at auctions. On January 16, 2005, Thomas Lindgren, director of natural history for Bonhams & Butterfields, will sell a giant ground sloth that was uncovered in Florida. “It’s largely intact, about 70 percent original, which is pretty unusual. It’s a trophy piece,” he says, adding that he expects that it will sell in the $70,000-to-$100,000 range.

Before a fossil skeleton can go to market, it must be assembled, and proper preparation can add thousands of dollars to its price, while shoddy work that sacrifices the integ­rity of the specimen will adversely affect its value. “Scientific correctness is important,” Herskowitz says. “I don’t just want it to be pretty; I want it to be scientifically accurate.”

In addition to provenance and accuracy, another, more general feature of fossils enhances their value; they are not as delicate as works of art and more traditional antiques. “Climate control isn’t necessary,” Herskowitz says. “They’re preweathered. Just make sure that you don’t drop them.”

Bonhams & Butterfields, 415.861.7500, www.butterfields.com
I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers, 310.285.0182, www.chait.com
Maxilla & Mandible, 212.724.6173, www.maxillaandmandible.com

Photo by James Lipman
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