NATURAL history auctions usually throw up some fascinating lots, from bugs in amber to fossilised fish, from meteorites to a range of precious and semi-precious rocks, and the January 11 sale held by I.M. Chait, in association with David Herskowitz, was no exception.
For just $400 you could have picked up a 30 million-year-old turtle shell, or for $10,000 the 7ft 4in (2.23m) skeleton of a species of cave bear (Ursus uralensis), larger than today’s grizzlies, kodiaks and polar bears, that roamed Eastern Europe during the last Ice Age. And if a whole bear is just too much to contemplate, then how about $250 (£130) for a Romanian cave bear’s impressive baculum or penis bone, ready mounted in an 8 x 12in (20 x 30cm) display case?
The fossilised, empty armadillo that graced the catalogue cover did not find a new home but a woolly mammoth skull that was dug out of the softening tundra at Yakuntia in the Indigirka Basin (Russia) just a couple of years ago did sell at $28,000 (£14,840). The tusks of the skull – 3ft (91cm) along the curves and easily removable “for safe transport” – are shorter than one would expect as the result of a deformity in the otherwise well-preserved aveols.
The catalogue entry describes the skull as being in excellent condition with only about 15-20 per cent restoration, mostly to the back, but in this specialised field, I thought it might be worthwhile reprinting part of the saleroom’s general advice on the matter of restoration, repair and enhancement of fossils.
Restoration, which as a general rule is not mentioned if it is less that 25 per cent, “...means the replacement of missing segments of the fossil not including repair of small cracks or chips. Repair is simply the reconstruction of the elements (piecing back together) that are recovered... A fossil is said to be enhanced when it needs to be highlighted, shaded or in some cases partly colored to match the rest of the specimen”. The saleroom also point out that all fossils offered have been professionally prepared for display in a scientifically accurate manner and in introducing a group of trilobites, brought a new word into my vocabulary: “these exquisite examples have been brought to us by two of the finest trilobite preparitors in the world”.