FOSSILS & MINERALS
Older than any antique, natural history objects are enjoying newfound favour, finds
Natural treasures such as this labradorite, which is tens of millions of years old, are a collecting trend
You might think that fossils, dinosaur bones, mineral slabs, petrified wood and meteorites were more Sir David Attenborough’s territory than Kelly Hoppen’s. But in recent years they have become a hot collecting area, especially among younger buyers and interior designers who consider them cutting- edge works of art rather than dusty relics. In the last decade, at the top level, we’ve seen dinosaur bidding wars between Hollywood movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage, and other deep-pocketed fossil fans. Twenty years ago, in 1997, Sotheby’s New York sold ‘ Sue’ the Tyrannosaurus rex for a world record $8.36m. Sue, the largest, most complete and best preserved of the 13 T-rex fossilised skeletons ever found, now lives at the Field Museum in Chicago.
While the best and rarest natural history examples will be snapped up by institutions and connoisseur collectors, many more are displayed in the home as pieces of modern art or sculpture might be, and are considered to blend in with them too. ‘ The increased interest in this area is to do with the wider arts market and the burgeoning ‘masterpiece’ field,’ says James Hyslop of Christie’s, who last October launched a twice-yearly Science & Natural History sale to meet the increased demand, with the next one slated for the 27th April.
‘ Natural history is undervalued compared to traditional art, and you can pay very modest prices for worldclass material,’ says Hyslop. ‘Over time
and with investment, you can build a collection that’s better than a museum’s because the items up for sale are fantastic quality, coming from private collections and directly from quarries in fossil hotspots such as Germany and America. We’ve sold pieces to clients from every continent; natural history has global appeal in the art market.’
Author, dealer and collector Errol Fuller agrees. He’s been fascinated by natural history all his life and curates the annual Evolution auctions at Summers Place in West Sussex, which launched four years ago. Originally, his inspiration was the great Victorian collectors. These days the spoils are even richer, yet prices remain very a ordable. ‘ You can get lots of lovely things for a few hundred pounds – small fossils and slices of minerals – but equally you could spend £10,000 on a collection of mineral specimens which look like great big jewels worth much more,’ he says. ‘At Evolution sales what you can be sure of is quality. We sift through and reject lots of items before compiling our sale catalogue.’
At his first sale, Fuller sold a spectacular and rare Diplodocus, ‘Misty’, to the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for £400,000, which has become the jewel in the crown of its collection. Last summer, he sold a large duck-billed dinosaur to a private buyer for £120,000, against an estimate of £50,000 to £80,000. ‘ The best fossils are very decorative as well as being intrinsically interesting – people are fascinated by the idea that they are many millions of years old,’ says Fuller.
Whole dinosaurs are extremely rare and therefore pricey. Associated fossils are far more a ordable: nests of dinosaur eggs, horns, claws, tusks, vertebrae and teeth sometimes so sharp you could cut your finger on them. ‘You may only have one dinosaur tooth on display, but if it’s the tooth of a Tyrannosaurus rex, an iconic and extinct animal, it’s a wonderful talking point,’ comments James Hyslop about such finds. At the last Christie’s sale in October, a magnificent Allosaurus claw fetched £22,500, a tooth of a Megalodon (a prehistoric shark, three times the size of a great white shark) sold for £3,500, while an Ichthyosaur paddle (or flipper) reached £1,875.
Plenty of fossils of moderate size and price regularly come up for sale
including marine lizards, fish, beetle-like trilobites with segmented shells, crabs, sea urchins and star fish, and spiralling ammonites (a type of mollusc), which were caught in sediment many millions of years ago and quite literally turned to stone. They have a sculptural quality that draws the eye. ‘ They are elegant forms and interior designers love them for that reason, add in the great age of such objects and you’ve got strong appeal on both visual and cerebral levels,’ says Hyslop.
Then there are the mineral specimens, freeform hunks of rock striated in all colours of the rainbow, from flashing green-blue labradorite, to banded tiger iron, to strawberries-and- cream jasper, to baby blue celestite, quarried from countries around the world. For precious metal fans there’s gold in its crystalline form, silver ore and even pyrite or fool’s gold, the downfall of many an adventurer.
And for those of us fascinated by outer space, there are chunks of meteorite that fell to earth eons ago – tactile and mysterious. For some collectors, the ancient petrified wood slices are the most fascinating. ‘ Sometimes you can see the edge of the bark on the specimen, and count the rings of the tree it came from,’ says Hyslop. It’s primeval, and a prime time to buy.
* Science & Natural History sale on 27th April at Christie’s South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London, SW7 3LD. 020 7930 6074; christies.com * Evolution sale will be held on 21st November at Summers Place Auctions, The Walled Garden, Stane Street, Billingshurst, West Sussex, RH14 9AB. 01403 331331; summersplaceauctions.com
ESTIMATE £1,000–£1,500 These fossil scallops, for sale at Christie’s, come from the Miocene era and are over 20 million years old
ESTIMATE £1,500–£2,500 This two-part split ammonite dates to the Jurassic era and is anything from 142 million to 205 million years old. It is up for auction at Christie’s
ESTIMATE £1,500–£2,500 This Jurassic ammonite in a nodule of rock was dug out in England and is up for sale at Christie’s. The Oxfordshire clays and Dorset coast are rich in Jurassic discoveries
ESTIMATE £10,000– £15,000 This large Canadian ammonite from the Cretaceous period is up for auction at Christie’s
ESTIMATE £5,000–£8,000 This ‘gogotte’, a sandstone concretion of quartz and calcium, is around 30 million years old and was formed when the global climate was cooling. It is up for sale at Christie’s
£25,000–£35,000 A rare, whole Ichthyosaur fossil from the Jurassic era is one of the star lots of Christie’s upcoming sale ESTIMATE
£700–£1,000 Mineral chunks make beautiful natural sculptures. This one for sale at Christie’s is labradorite and shimmers in natural light ESTIMATE
ESTIMATE £2,000–£3,000 Christie’s is auctioning a chunk of the Gibeon meteorite, which fell on Namibia in prehistoric times and was discovered in 1838 beside the Great Fish River
ESTIMATE £1,500–£2,500 A fossil crab from the Eocene era, 55 to 34 million years ago, is expected to be snapped up at the Christie’s sale