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Passion for Paleo: Amateur Fossil Collectors
Lisa M. Pinsker

Sidebar: On show in Tucson

It’s 6:00 p.m. in West Springfield, Mass., and fossil dealer Youssef is having a good day. On this first night of a weekend-long trade show, he’s already sold his most expensive item for $5,000: a 1,000-pound rock slab embedded with 13 fossilized trilobites from his home country of Morocco.

While Youssef, a high-spirited middle-aged man who is wearing a yellow T-shirt and jeans (and who has only the single name), may not look like a polished salesman, he knows his market. Fossil collecting is a way of life for people who live in the Atlas Mountain region of Morocco, and Youssef has been collecting fossils since he found his first trilobite in the Moroccan desert as a child. “It was huge,” he says, holding his hands out in front of him about a foot apart. He remembers his dad selling the fossil to a French collector for $200.

Fossil dealer and Morocco native Youssef proudly displays his most expensive item for sale at the East Coast Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show — a slab of trilobites from Morocco, now owned by the Paleontological Research Institute in Ithaca, N.Y. Photo by Lisa M. Pinsker.

“Digging is what you have to do to survive,” says Youssef, whose father and grandfather taught him the fossil business. “That’s how you bring food home.”

Youssef is only one of many fossil dealers throughout the world, and one of several vendors selling their wares at the East Coast Gem, Mineral and Fossil show, the largest show of its kind in the eastern United States. At a distance, his booth looks like an average table of trinkets. But a closer inspection reveals a wide variety of treasures from Earth’s past — from tiny shark teeth for $1 to the $5,000 slab of trilobites.

The $5,000 assemblage of now-extinct marine critters fossilized in stone was a great find for its buyer, Bill Klose, a volunteer at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, N.Y. “To find a piece that is not assembled from smaller pieces is unusual,” he says. He hopes that the slab will be a good complement to PRI’s 3 million other specimens, about the seventh largest collection in the United States.

Although the August show in Spring-field is small compared to the annual gem and fossil show being held this month in Tucson, Ariz. (see sidebar), it is still a treasure trove for eager collectors, who range from the 10-year-old dinosaur enthusiast and the lawyer-turned-amateur meteorite collector, to the small boutique shop owner and the science museum curator. Klose, who has been attending fossil shows since the 1950s, says that the fun of such events is that “you never know what you’ll find.” The show also highlights the ways in which the fossil industry has changed into a big global business.

An Allosaurus in my bedroom

When she was 13 years old, India Wood began collecting a series of bone fragments on her family’s friends’ ranch near Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and storing them in her bedroom. She had been collecting fossils in northwestern Colorado since she was eight years old. To find out what the bones were and how to best retrieve them, she went to the library, where she learned that the bones belonged to a 150-million-year-old Allosaurus.

After excavating the Allosaurus for three years, Wood called in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where the Allosaurus is now on permanent display in its “Prehistoric Journey” exhibit. “Imagine our surprise when we found a complete Allosaurus in this girl’s bedroom,” says Kirk Johnson, chief curator of paleontology at the Denver museum. She was “very competent,” Johnson says.

Wood’s unique story shares one important theme in common with other fossil enthusiasts: Most fossil collectors start young and are self-trained, and their hobby continues to fuel their interest in the natural world as they get older.

Steve Hess became interested in fossils when he was eight years old, while on a summer camping trip in the Pennsylvania mountains. “We were hiking in woods, expecting to find wildlife and trees, and then I came across a rock outcrop with fossils,” he recalls. “I got a bucket and collected them for the rest of the camping trip,” using his father’s claw hammer to crack the rocks open. Only later did he realize they were brachiopods — ancient clam-like shells — after looking them up in a fossil book in a university library. That experience began a lifelong hobby.

Although Hess veered off the paleontological path when he decided to major in computer science in college, he eventually returned. “I now sell fossils on the Internet all over the world,” says Hess, who founded Extinctions, a company based in Colorado Springs, Colo. He’s been in the business selling fossils for 20 years, and he still loves telling the story of his camping trip because “I discovered the fossils myself,” Hess explains.

From booth to booth in Springfield, people recall their experiences as children discovering fossils for the first time. Take Mark Havenstein, who found his first fossil shark tooth on a beach in Spain while his father was posted there in the Navy. He and his wife now own Low Country Geologic, based in Charleston, S.C. And then there’s Herbert Knodel, who as a young boy in Hanover, Germany, found a small crinoid stem that looked like a penny from the top — part of a spiny creature similar to a sea urchin. It was in the wall of a church, and “I immediately knew what it was,” he says. He and his wife now own Rotunda Rock, a mineral and fossil shop in Englewood, Fla., that has been in business since 1998.

Although many of the individuals who sell fossils at the show are amateur paleontologists — they do not have a degree in paleontology — they have years of experience in finding, identifying and preparing a wide range of fossils. They truly love what they do, and each person has their own favorites.

Havenstein, who has a bachelor’s degree in geology, specializes in shark teeth. When he first started his business in 1992, he would collect for two months out of the year, scuba diving for teeth. Many different characteristics separate high-quality teeth from lesser ones, he explains, with size and integrity as key qualities. His table includes small and large teeth and even some that are still attached to the shark’s jaw.

Although shark teeth are also a popular item for Extinctions, especially during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, when, Hess says, “the volume of traffic on our Web site shoots up,” Hess’ specialty is trilobites, including the more rare spiny trilobites. He says that he is “one of the few people in the world who can prepare them correctly.” (Preparation includes extracting the fossil from its parent rock while keeping the specimen intact.)

Trays of amber glisten at the selling table of Rotunda Rock, based in Englewood, Fla., at the East Coast Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show last August. Photo by Lisa M. Pinsker.


For Knodel, his love is amber. “It’s just beautiful,” he says. “Under a microscope, you see a whole different world — a picture taken from 50 million years ago where resin just flowed over.” Raw amber looks like an uninspiring mass of rock, but polishing it up and taking a closer look could reveal mating flies, beetle larva or even mosquitoes — which Knodel explains to a customer are one of the more elusive insects to be found in amber, with only three or four discovered in the world.

eBay all the way

In August 1999, Larry Lozier and his wife found an enormous bone in the backyard of their home in Hyde Park, N.Y. Lozier turned to the Internet to find clues about the bone: After seeing a bid on eBay for a mastodon skeleton going for $4.5 million, he began to think he might have a mastodon, so he called professional paleontologists to look at his discovery. That led to a six-week-long excavation project, headed up by PRI, with hundreds of volunteers from the surrounding area. The result was one of the most complete mastodon skeletons ever found, now on exhibit at PRI’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca. (A university eventually acquired the mastodon advertised on eBay for substantially less than the original asking price.)

In the past five years, the Internet, and particularly eBay, has become part of the regular routine for museums, individual collectors and dealers interested in selling their fossils, appraising their collections or sizing up potential purchases. People no longer need to be specialists to do appraisals, or leave the comfort of their home or office to “discover” some unique pieces.

For Hess of Extinctions, the Internet changed his life. His company got into the Internet fossil business early, buying key domain names — crinoids.com, trilobites.com, sharkteeth.com and a slew of others — before the huge boom that started five years ago. Now, Internet sales of fossils make up the largest percentage of his company’s revenues.

“It gives a dealer a much wider market,” says Klose of PRI. “Their fossils are out there being shown to the entire world.” Dealers no longer have to hope that someone comes to the show who wants their particular items.

But Havenstein of Low Country Geologic says that the exposure also has its drawbacks. “It’s harder to be original,” he says. “Everyone’s looking.” Still, he says, it helps business. Low Country does Internet business both on its own Web site and through eBay auctions.

Klose says that he looks at every item on eBay. He then compares prices between eBay sellers and fossil dealers, and even bones up on “going rates” before heading out to fossil shows.

Visiting eBay’s fossil page on an average day yields a huge range of items, from a piece of petrified wood going for $1 to a 20-foot-long skeleton of an Edmontosaurus dinosaur, with a “Buy now” price of $40,000. (At last check, the highest bid for the Edmontosaurus was $6,100.) By looking at the variety of fossils on eBay, “even someone in a third-world country has access to fossil prices and values,” Hess says.

Whether online or at shows, collecting fossils is still an expensive hobby, which is why Hess says that the people he sells to are those who “can afford good stuff.” At his Springfield show table, Hess was selling, for example, a fossil of two keichousaurs from China — Triassic-aged reptiles that lived about 220 million years ago — which shows all the reptiles’ digits preserved in exquisite detail. At a going price of $1,895, it may interest a variety of buyers, Hess says — perhaps a doctor or lawyer who wants something interesting to display on an office wall.

It is also not unusual to find professional scientists at these shows looking for good finds for themselves or their museum’s collections, just as Klose is for PRI. In Springfield, as at other shows, the amateur and professional paleontology communities intersect, revealing an intimate relationship — sometimes tenuous, but many other times warm and complementary.

Indiana Jones ideals

“It belongs in a museum” — the cry of a young Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade — is not necessarily the call of all paleontologists when it comes to amateur fossil collecting. “Eventually, many fossils in private collections will end up in museums, and so will be available to the scientific community,” Klose says. And in the meantime, amateurs, he says, are doing a service in collecting material that might otherwise be destroyed.

The questions these days, however, revolve around what shape the fossil will be in when it arrives and whether it arrives legally. The rules that govern an individual country’s fossil trade are complex and varied. In Morocco, for example, people can sell pieces of dinosaur fossils but not whole skeletons. That means, Klose says, that a dealer may intentionally break apart a dinosaur skeleton to sell it off one piece at a time.

“Oftentimes, the scientific value of a fossil becomes lost,” he says. Not only could the fossil be in pieces, but also people may lie about the spot it came from, which skews its placement within the fossil record. For example, in July, Nature reported that some fossils that went on sale at an auction at Guernsey’s in New York were listed as being from China, but were probably smuggled from Mongolia.

At the same auction, Argentinean fossils, including a rare dinosaur egg in which the skull of a sauropod is visible, were removed from sale by the FBI. The Argentinean government called up U.S. officials after learning of the auction; in Argentina, it is illegal to remove fossils from the country. The owner of the fossils bought the egg two years before at the Tucson fossil show. The fossils will soon return to Argentina for scientific study and protection.

Despite such controversies, however, Allan Russell, a paleontologist who takes amateurs on fossil-hunting trips in New England, says that most fossils would be lost to erosion if people were not allowed to go out and collect freely. (In the United States, laws on collecting fossils vary by state — see Geotimes, October 2000, for more.)

“Amateurs are very important,” Russell says. Indeed, says Johnson of the Denver Museum, “every museum has great fossils that have been donated by amateurs.”

Hess, for example, one day discovered a rare complete Tully Monster fossil in a collection he bought. The Tully Monster, or Tullimonstrum gregarium, is the state fossil of Illinois, so Hess contacted the Field Museum in Chicago and asked, “How are your Tully Monsters?” he recalls. “I have one you’ll want to see.” Hess offered to donate the fossil, and the museum took it and made it part of its “Life Through Time” display. The fossil is unique because of its completeness, Hess says. The animal’s proboscis (long snout) is usually lost during fossilization, he says, but the donated Tully Monster’s proboscis is curled around and back on itself. “It’s one in thousands,” Hess says.

Still, most museums are not regular buyers at events such as the Springfield show because they usually can’t afford it, says Warren Allmon, director of PRI. “We buy very few fossils ourselves,” he says. “We depend on the generosity of people like Bill Klose who either donate specimens to us, or donate funds to purchase particular specimens.” Allmon adds that the institute also has to confirm that each donated fossil was legally acquired in its country of origin before accepting it.

Worlds intersect

At the end of the Springfield show, a family of four loads its car full of treats. All four — father, mother, son and daughter — are eager to show off the day’s purchases.

The father, Steve Schneider, a lawyer who collects fluorescent minerals in his spare time, says that his son fueled his hobby after returning from a Boy Scout camping trip with a new awareness of the natural world. That interest has sparked a new pastime for the entire family, and perhaps it could inspire a new generation of geoscientists, as it did young India Wood after she discovered the Allosaurus. “Paleontology is the gateway drug of science,” Johnson says.

The Denver museum has several programs to encourage public participation in all aspects of paleontology. A new Web site, for example, encourages amateur fossil collectors to identify and submit to a digital library the fossil plants and insects they find in the Green River Formation of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. A popular spot for amateur paleontologists, much of the sandstone formation is exposed on Bureau of Land Management land, making it legal to collect plant and invertebrate fossils, Johnson says. But few good books are out there for people to use as a resource for identifying what they find.

That’s where the Green River Paleobotany Project comes into play. The project’s software, called the Paleocollaborator, is a tool for collectors to understand their finds and “an innovative way” for the museum to collaborate with amateur collectors, Johnson says. “People collect fossils and sometimes want to give them to the museum, and sometimes not,” he says. “This is a handshake in the middle.” The collectors do not have to physically donate the fossil for it to become part of the scientific domain.

The Denver museum also offers a certification program in paleontology, in which people can learn about everything from collecting and preparing fossils to curating and research. This “mini-master’s program,” which started in 1989, has 200 graduates, and currently more than 160 volunteers work in the fossil preparation lab (which visitors to the museum can view through a special window).

Bruce Young had been a volunteer at the museum for a decade before discovering a Triceratops skull at an excavation site in November 2003. Housing developer Lennar Homes, who was building at the location, agreed not only to let the volunteers onto the site to look for fossils, but also to donate the skull to the museum, where it is now on display in the “Prehistoric Journey” exhibit.

Ken Carpenter (right), curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and three museum volunteers peer at a Triceratops skull found by a volunteer collector at a home development site in the Denver, Colo., area. Courtesy of Kirk Johnson.


Not all developers, however, are so cooperative. At any given time, Denver has about 10,000 new home sites under construction, and most developers “run away screaming when they hear ‘archaeology’ or ‘paleontology,’” Johnson says. The success rate for getting onto a site to collect fossils is only about 30 percent. “The amount of fossils destroyed on an annual basis is huge,” he says.

Johnson hopes that the museum’s volunteer program will encourage cooperation between amateurs and scientists, and lead to more discoveries. Says Klose of PRI: “We are salvaging stuff for the future.”

On show in Tucson

Fossil and gem collection is serious business is Tucson, Ariz., where thousands of rock hounds pour in from around the world every February. Started 50 years ago by a group of 28 hobbyists known as the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show supports more than 30 “satellite” shows — most of which sell minerals and fossils wholesale — that last two weeks.

The Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that in 2000, more than 50,000 people attended the shows. The gross merchandise retail sales alone totaled $85.7 million. Mineralogical Record Editor Wendell Wilson has combined the sales figures with estimates of unreported sales and other business during the show to extrapolate that every year, the show brings a quarter of a billion dollars worth of business to Tucson.

As at the East Coast Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show in Springfield, Mass., booths at the Tucson show represent a wide range of interests — from jewelry beading and gems to fossils and meteorites (see main story). The show has become an event that attracts not only hobbyists but also scientists, and is now the largest of its kind in the world.

LMP

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Pinsker is managing editor of Geotimes.

Links:
"The trouble with fossil thieves," Geotimes, October 2000
"Geologic wonders hit the highway," Geotimes, August 2004

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