Monday, November 30, 2009

A passion for paleontology Big bones meanbig prices, writesSusan Moore.

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Perhaps it has something to do with the implausibly bespectacled Cary Grant as Dr Huxley obsessing over his brontosaurus skeleton in Bringing Up Baby, or Hollywood's great dinosaur spectacle Jurassic Park, but the idea of discovering the bones of some mighty prehistoric creature holds a certain romance. For the fortunate few, fantasy turns into reality - not least for Susan Hendrickson, arguably the most fortunate fossil hunter of them all. Digging in the hills of western South Dakota in 1990, she discovered the remains of the largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever unearthed; it was named "Sue" in her honour.

Seven years later, and Sue, all 42ft of her (or him), was under the hammer at Sotheby's New York. After an epic bidding battle, she went for a suitably sizeable price of Dollars 8.4m. The victor was the Field Museum in Chicago, handsomely bankrolled by Mc-Donald's and Walt Disney.

It seems almost inconceivable that Sue would have fetched such a price without the success of Jurassic Park in 1993, or, for that matter, that the Field Museum would have found such generous corporate support. Certainly the price of amber fossils soared after the film's release, as did private interest and buying when the auction houses entered the burgeoning market in 1998 and began to promote natural history sales.

"A lot of these new buyers were collectors in other areas," says Thomas Lindgren, director of natural history at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles. And the most prized specimens of what Lindgren calls "natural art" are well-preserved and well-presented fossils, minerals and strikingly formed meteorites.

Palaeontology has become a passion for several high-profile collectors, among them Sheikh Al-Thani of Qatar. Natural history is becoming increasingly big business. This was illustrated in March this year when the Los Angeles-based I M Chait Gallery staged its first natural history auction in New York and realised a record Dollars 1.6m. Its star turn, a skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, advertised as "perfect for a New York City apartment", doubled expectations to sell to a private (West Coast) collector for Dollars 276,000. A tusk of a woolly mammoth changed hands for a record Dollars 96,000. Big prices are not only prompting more excavationsbut also luring very privatecollections out from behindwhat Christie's consultant in Paris, Professor Eric Mickeler, describes as "the high and thick walls of gentlemanly estates".

Christie's own natural history sale in Paris in April offered an impressive group of large prehistoric mammals from the Quaternary Period, all of which became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age; all made record prices. Towering over them all was "President", the complete skeleton of a Siberian mammoth - Mammuthus primigenius, the biggest mammal the earth has ever seen. Standing almost four metres high and armed with two mighty tusks, it doubled expectations to sell for Euros 312,000.

Skin and paws from the first recorded specimen of a Siberian woolly rhino - Rhinoceros tichorinus - found in 1771 were sent to St Petersburg for the Cabinet of Curiosities of Peter the Great. In a more modern twist to the idea, a specimen, of over four meters long could easily look at home standing as an installation in a contemporary art gallery; it soared over its estimate to go to a European collector for Euros 120,000.

Another highlight of this sale was a private collection of 30 fish and plant fossils mostly from Monte Bolca in northern Italy, a site renowned for producing highly defined and well-preserved fossils of high aesthetic value. Stealing the limelight was an exceptional angel fish, one of only five known specimens and the only one in private hands. It sold for a record Euros 120.000.

The somewhat unlovely bezoar is another marvel and, as any Harry Potter-reading child will tell you, is a hard ball of hair and fibre found in the intestines of ruminant animals; it was also once believed to be an antidote to any poison and, at it happens, some types are able to precipitate arsenic compounds. Christie's offered an example for sale which had entered a grand European collection in the 16th or 17th century and bears the traces of grating which suggests it was used for medicinal purposes, possibly as a cure for melancholy. It changed hands for Euros 33,600.

Not everything in this fast-evolving field is expensive, however. For instance, at Bonhams & Butterfields' natural history auction in Los Angeles last week, an immense, 600lb specimen of smoky quartz, excavated near Govenador Valadares, Brazil, and mounted on a bronze stand crafted by the Oregon gemstone sculptor Lawrence Stoller, fetched Dollars 60,000. According to Lindgren, "works by Stoller could one day be sought after and collected with the same desire and fascination as Faberge eggs". A rare 4m-year-old giant armadillo found in Jefferson County, Florida, and displayed with the outer armour alongside its skeleton, realised Dollars 36,000. And last November, the same firm sold an extraordinary dinosaur nest, containing 22 unhatched eggs with exposed embryos, for Dollars 453,296. The sale was later cancelled, however, when it was discovered the piece had been exported illegally from China.

"Buyers should not hesitate to ask questions about the title or export of specimens, and ask for documentation. Any honest seller will be happy to provide information," warns Mickeler.

Auction houses are not the only route to purchase. Canada Fossils, for instance, the largest fossil company in the world, has mounted and installed dinosaur skeletons in museums across the globe, not least in the Far East. It also offers anything from ammonites, mammoth tusks and collections of small fossils and museum-quality skeletons for schools and amateur collectors.

Named Works: Jurassic Park (Motion picture)

Source Citation
Moore, Susan. "A passion for paleontology Big bones meanbig prices, writesSusan Moore." Financial Times 9 June 2007: 19. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Dec. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:CJ164660882

Disclaimer:This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

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