FOS­SILS & MIN­ER­ALS

Older than any an­tique, nat­u­ral his­tory ob­jects are en­joy­ing new­found favour, finds

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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

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