Buying Fossils



Things to consider when buying fossils.


The art of buying fossils

Always having an affinity for evolution and natural history, I have been a serious fossil collector for many years. I have also done my share of collecting fossils in the field, though there was never enough time for this. Of course, most fossils of collecting interest are found around the planet in locations remote from the US. Thus, like most collectors, I’ve been a buyer of fossils. Buying fossils, at least in the high-end, is in many ways similar to buying art in that it requires a lot of knowledge, and acquaintance with trusted brokers. Below, I share some of what I have learned, some dos and don’ts, and where possible illustrated tidbits and anecdotes to make you a smart buyer.
Don’t be duped by hyperbole.

There are a number of honest and knowledgeable fossil dealers now on the Internet. In general, they are in the business because love it, because it is hardly a road to riches or fame. But, be careful out there, as some also engage in disinformation and exaggeration. I have come to particularly distrust those that engage in hyperbole, and particularly abundant rhetoric that denigrates their competitors in a manner intended to elevate their own stature as honest experts; those that use such marketing tactics are often neither. The best fossil dealers present their product in a straightforward manner, with applicable scientific information, and find it unnecessary to use and overuse hyperbolic and braggart exhortations, IMHO. In short, they take the high road. Not surprisingly, most hyperbole involves rarity and quality, areas I will expand upon below.

Fossil value is highly variable

What a fossil is worth depends on what someone is willing to pay – as this statement is too trite to be of use, let me expand. A fossils market value derives from the pretty obvious metrics: 1) inherent rarity of the species, genera, family, and even the phylum; 2) availability, as sometimes what is (or was) an abundant fossils has become unavailable, and vice versa; 3) quality, as there can be considerable variation in preservation quality, albeit, as a general rule there are no perfect fossils; 4) preparation, most fossils require some amount of preparation, the quality and expense of which can also very considerably; 5) size – everything else being equal for a specific species, larger size could ascribe higher value; 6) inherent eye appeal, for example a large dragonfly will be will more in demand than a truly rare diminutive beetle; and 7) the fossil site, fossils from famous sites and particularly the Lagerstatten have added value. The price to pay when buying an individual fossil depends on some combination of the seven criteria listed above. Below I delve a little deeper into each criterion, although some criteria are clearly interrelated.
Buying fossils based on inherent rarity

Buying fossils based on Rarity

First bear in mind, rarity is a subjective metric, and needs more context with respect to how it determines value. I think we can agree that if only one of a certain species exists, that is truly rare. On the other hand, if a species is say 0.1% (one in a thousand fossils) of a fossil site’s fauna, it is relatively rare compared to the other 99.9%. Context matters. Beware of fossil dealers who overuse the term rare without proper context. Also be aware, it is not rare for the rare to become common, or the common become rare. It is a mistake to think that a rare fossil is somehow a good investment, as there is no way to know how many Rembrandts will be dug up in the future – or, for that matter, how many were held off the market to maintain the perception of rarity.

Buying fossils as investments

Touting fossils as investments is the behavior of a flim-flam man, but it happens. It is reasonable to expect that over the long term, at best, a fossil will keep pace with inflation; thus you would break even in real dollar terms if you could sell it at retail. Have you ever bought a rare coin at retail price as an investment, waited 10 year years, and then ask the original dealer what he would pay you for it? If so, how did that work out for you? You might get lucky, but the odds are way more in your favor on Wall Street. Any honest fossil dealer full well knows this, and I'd advise steering well clear of anyone that uses investment as a marketing strategy, because I'm sure the dishonesty does not stop there.

Buying fossils based on availability

Fossil availability and rarity are in many ways synonymous, with some distinctions to be drawn. Realize first of all that available fossils can become unavailable, and vice versa, as in the case of rare fossils. There are examples of once common fossils becoming unavailable when a fossil site becomes a strip mall or residential housing track. Also common are fossil sites once long collected that have become private land with no access, or public land where it is illegal to collect; in these cases fossils will only be available from old collections if and when they emerge and are sold. Sometimes the collection and sale of fossils from entire countries becomes forbidden, where China is a notable example. Chinese law essentially bans export and sale of its abundant fossils. Nonetheless, Chinese fossils appear on the market, and particularly on eBay. The Chinese laws are strictly enforced on rural farmers, while the wealthy elite including paleontological professionals find rich rewards in collecting and offing them to surrogates located in other Asian countries.

Buying fossils based on quality

Quality is an important determinant of a fossil’s value, but still is a subjective metric and needs context. Often, the concept of quality depends on completeness and quality of preservation. Bear in mind that, as a general rule, there are no perfect fossils that are extracted from the rock record. In most cases (except amber and some chemical films) a fossil is a rock within a rock, a cast in a rock where there was once a living organism, and traces and footprints of them on or in a rock. It is unreasonable and naïve to believe you will find a perfectly preserved fossil on the market. Perfection is obtained by starting with good preservation, and then performing professional and expensive preparation, which almost always involves some restoration. Much fossil dealer hyperbole and dishonesty, where found, surrounds claims of no restoration. It has always baffled me why anyone would care if there was some amount of restoration, or, for that matter, why would you even want to pay the high price of preparatory perfection for a rock within a rock (but, that’s just me); psychologists call this pathology anal retentiveness. Equally baffling are claims of only minor restoration, when the whole point of fine preservation is that, you can’t tell – and yet, there are so many experts who think they can.

Fossil preparation considerations when buying fossils

The best professional fossil preparators are true artisans who toil away for pretty meager remuneration, at least based on U.S. income. While the income is better than flipping hamburgers or being a greeter at Walmart, in the U.S., even full time work would yield a so-called living wage; $20 per hour is nominal fee and somewhat more for the best of the best. Thus, in the U.S., most preparators do it as a part time labor of love for supplemental income. In contrast, many non-European countries have expert preparators who can make an excellent living. I’ve seen websites that claim to do all their own preparation in their own lab. Such a claim should be viewed skeptically, except for a view individuals that specialize in vertebrates. Common sense tells you that preparing all your fossils in your own lab is precluded by economics. Furthermore, most fossils coming from outside the U.S. cannot be obtained in unprepared state. Also, given that you never truly know what rock is inside the rock (so to speak), it would make little sense to import unprepared fossils. This would not only inordinately increase transportation cost I do see, however, instances where fossils imported in prepared state receive subsequent “enhancement” in the form of paint jobs and by other means that actually has a deleterious effect on fossil value. Foreign fossils from a particular site often comes from a singular source or at most few sources that are common sources for all fossil dealers, and claims of having unique partner sources are usually false claims. Again, common sense dictates that U.S. preparation except in rare circumstances is economically precluded, and an unnecessary final cost burden if undertaken.
Keeping the above in mind, proper fossil preparation can yield stunning results, high in aesthetic appeal and rendering fossils in lifelike representations. But it often comes at a high cost that serious collectors are willing to pay. Of course, poor fossil preparation and use of less care can damage fossils.

Also see examples of fossil preparation

Fossil size and value

To repeat, everything else being equal, a fossil’s size matters, though sometimes a juvenile form might have special appeal and value. Given that all animals start small and grow, during which time survival is at stake, such that the larger are older and of diminishing number in the size distribution. If an animal is fecund and quickly grows, then we might assume that size follows a somewhat normal distribution, with the average the most common fossil size found and the number diminishing as size is less than or more than the average. I big exception that skews the distribution to larger size is for animals that shed body parts, notably animals such as trilobites and other arthropods and invertebrates that undergo ecdysis or mounting of exoskeletons in order to grow. Such molting is one reason trilobites have such an extensive fossil record. Other examples are shark teeth and dinosaur teeth that are prodigious in the fossil record because teeth are replaced through life. The longer an animal lived, the more times it molted, or the more teeth it shed, skewing the size distribution to above average. Still, the very largest come from animals. Another size consideration when buying fossils is the interrelationship of size and preservation quality. Larger fossils will generally be more at risk to distortion and damage by the various forces imposed by burial in the earth for millennia to eons, as well as stresses to the fossil during collection. There are serious collectors who only want the biggest and best, where a few millimeters in trilobite length, for example, really matters to them. That’s what they want, and that is just fine, though I’m left to wonder about the size of their pickup trucks. Settling for the smaller fossil, all else equal, is a more frugal approach.

Buying fossils based on eye appeal

Well, of course this is important, as what we mainly do with fossils are look at them. Whether they are framed on the wall, are on a shelf, or in a cabinet, they are there to see, and foster wonder about evolution and natural history. Of course, certain animals invoke more wonder, and incite more curiosity, or are just prettier to the beholders eyes --eye candy so to speak. It’s hard to beat the inherent appeal of the extinct ammonites with its Fibonacci spiral, or an ammonites shell preserved as mother of pearl (aragonite). Beauty is in the eye of the beholder pretty much sums it up.

Respecfully submitted, Stephen L

Also see: Buying fossils on eBay

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