The fortunes to be found in fossils
An auction house in France stoked controversy last month with the sale of a fossilised dinosaur skeleton. Chris Carter reports.
"This is the real Jurassic Park," says James Hyslop of Christie's in the auction house's online magazine. He was talking about two pterosaur skeletons ahead of their sale on 10 July in London. The first is a Rhamphorhynchus muensteri, a light-bodied "winged lizard" ("pterosaur" in the Greek) that flew above modern-day Solnhofen in Bavaria until one day 150 million years ago, it plunged into the lagoons and was immaculately preserved in fossil form. It is valued at £60,000 to £90,000.
The other, also from Solnhofen, is the "incredibly rare" Germanodactylus cristatus. When it was dug up in 1901, it was believed to be a new species of pterodactyl, only to be later reclassified as scientists learnt more about it. Just four fossils are known to exist, and all of those are in museums. This example, with the largest recorded wingspan at an estimated 55 inches, is expected to fetch between £80,000 and £100,000.
Last month, the sale of a dinosaur skeleton excavated in Wyoming in 2013 revived the controversy over the auctioning of fossils. It was at the Eiffel Tower in Paris on 4 June that the skeleton of an allosaurus (the only lot in the auction) was sold for €2.3m to an unknown buyer higher than its €1.8m upper estimate. However, some believe the skeleton actually belongs to a new, unknown species and fear it will now be "lost to science".
"There are as many differences between it and an allosaurus as between a human and a gorilla," expert Eric Geneste told news agency AFP before the sale. The buyer reportedly promised the French auction house, Aguttes, that it would eventually end up on public display.
That, for Thomas Carr, a palaeontologist at Carthage College in Wisconsin, is not enough. He argues that fossils in private hands are difficult to keep tabs on, and when they do pop up, they can as quickly disappear again, leaving scientists unable to conduct repeat studies. "The cornerstone of all the sciences is reproducibility of observations," he tells Wired magazine. For that reason, Carr refuses to study any skeleton in private hands, and urges others to do the same. But with sales driving up prices, museums are finding it harder to get their hands on specimens.
That said, it's not all one way. Museums tend to have tighter budgets, along with already large collections, Paul Barrett, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, tells the science journal Nature. A consequence of that is commercial fossil collectors are targeting private buyers instead, completing the circle. "There seems to be a larger number of wealthy companies and individuals interested in acquiring dinosaurs", says Barrett.
Christie's thinks auctioneers have a role to play in their preservation. "As custodians of the art that passes through our doors, we recognise our duty to research the objects we handle and sell," Hyslop tells MoneyWeek. "We also believe that trade can contribute to the further study and research of objects." The Germanodactylus cristatus, he adds, had been made available to scientists.
Creature from the deep
Not all the creatures in the Christie's sale of science and natural history (see above) flew. Some swam, such as the fossilised skeleton of an ichthyosaur ("fish lizard" in Greek) from Germany. Look beneath its rib cage and you can still see the remains of its last meal, eaten up to 200 million years ago: belemnites squid-like creatures with hard internal skeletons. The ichthyosaur is expected to fetch between £25,000 and £35,000.
Other lots include the skull of an entelodont, which were two-metre tall, large-toothed omnivorous mammals that lived roughly 32 million years ago during the Oligocene, and go by the distinctly unscientific names of "killer pig" and "hog from hell". That is expected to sell for up to £15,000.
But when it comes to sheer toothiness, the star of the show has to be the skeleton of a sabre-toothed cat, an apex predator that, sadly for the entelodont, lived around the same time and in the same neighbourhood modern-day South Dakota. This Dinictis felina skeleton (to give it its proper name) has an estimate of between £70,000 and £100,000.
A watch that was said to be on the person of Admiral Horatio Nelson when he was shot at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was up for auction this week as part of Sotheby's Treasures sale in London. Made by the Swiss-born watchmaker Josiah Emery, the watch came into Nelson's possession some time after the Battle of the Nile in 1798. After his death, it was given to his brother, William, and in 1835, William's daughter, Charlotte Nelson, who placed the watch in a case with an inscription that it should be "preserved for any of her descendants, who may enter the Navy". The estimate is £250,000 to £400,000, "though for a watch of this historical importance, this seems very conservative", says Hodinkee.
Napoleon Bonaparte's bicorne hat fetched €280,000 at the De Baecque auction house in Lyon last month, 203 years to the day that it was said to have been salvaged from the Battle of Waterloo. It had been expected to fetch €40,000 at the most, the BBC reports. The French emperor was so fond of hats that he had 12 in service at any one time, which were renewed at a rate of four a year. He would have a valet break them in first, and shunned fashion by wearing them side-on, so he could be better seen on the battlefield. Napoleon is said to have worn 120 of them. One was sold by the Mongasque royal family for €1.9m four years ago.