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Know the West

People respond to owning a piece of the earth's crust


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Who owns these bones?

Buying a personal dinosaur has never been easier. In the past few years, fossils have entered two new commercial arenas - the internet and the art auction.

Web surfers can order fossils from several home pages including "Artifacts-R-Us: Your One-Stop Shop For Rare Artifacts." A complete Triceratops skeleton is available for $1 million; four Hypacrosaurus Stebbengeri skeletons mounted together go for $2 million, and bargain shoppers can pick up a 19-egg Sauropod nest for $55,000.

The 200-year-old Phillips Auction House in New York City sells fossils as if they were rare paintings or antiques. According to Phillips staffer Alison Miller, the business took a gamble last June on the dinosaur fad and held the nation's first natural history auction. It was such a success they immediately planned two more.

"People respond to the concept of owning a piece of earth's crust, owning items that you would find in a natural history museum, items that never before could be purchased," says Miller.

The focus of the Phillips Natural History Auction is aesthetics. Pieces must be uncommon and mounted like artwork. Miller says this filters out the mainstream dealers and leaves only museum-quality pieces. At the Tucson fossil show, dealers bantered about which of their finds might make it to Phillips.

Although the clientele is largely private collectors, commercial dealers claim the show is a form of education. "Phillips is one of the most remarkable ways to inform the populace," says a dealer at the upscale New York City fossil shop, Maxilla and Mandible, Ltd. "Extinction is a powerful thing. They see it face to face."

Scientists speak disparagingly of the private auction, and not every commercial dealer likes it. British dealer Terry Manning was flat broke when he came to Tucson. But he sold a dinosaur egg to a Wyoming museum rather than put it on the auction block at Phillips and possibly make more money.

"That would be obscene," says Manning. "I don't even think art should be sold to private collections."