Contrary to expectation, the star lots at Bonhams’ 2013 Distinguished Fossils auction in New York were not the skeletons of a nanotyrannus and a ceratopsian locked in combat, or the mounted tyrannosaurus. Who has houseroom for those? Rather, it was the smaller pieces that drew intense bidding: the metre-long skull of a prehistoric whale called a zygorhiza (sold for $77,500), a rare bowfin ($35,000) and a 2m mural of a shoal of 50 tiny fish ($25,000).
Such results come as little surprise to specialist fossil and mineral dealer Dale Rogers, who has a gallery in Pimlico. “Natural history is big news now,” he says, hence a surge in interest in marine fossils from buyers as charmed by their aesthetics and potential as conversation pieces as by their palaeontological importance. “Our clients don’t just tend to be geeky chaps any more.”
He cites “a big collection of ammonites” he recently put together for a client who wanted specimens of as wide a variety of colours as possible – so long as they were all the same size. Most ammonites range from a few centimetres to 50cm and come in shades of brown, charcoal and white, though occasionally, says Rogers, highly sought-after examples are found in Canada that have “iridescent shells like abalone, but bright red or green”. In the event, the least exceptional specimen in the collection cost £500, the rarest £16,000.
That said, specialist collectors are by no means taking a back seat, as shown by Roger Jones, global head of non-oil trading at Geneva-based Mercuria. As a child, he spent his pocket money on ammonites, an interest reignited in the early days of the internet when he came upon a website selling a 380-million-year-old osteolepsis. It turned out, he adds, “to be a rather poor example”. However, it was the start of what would develop into an important collection of Palaeozoic fish, and taught him to buy more cautiously. “Both Dale Rogers and Chris Moore [of Forge Fossils in Dorset] do fossil dealing extremely well,” he says. “They’re the Indiana Joneses of the profession.”
As for what determines the pieces Jones collects, “some I appreciate for aesthetics, some for value or rarity”. He keeps the 20 “irreplaceable” ones in a fireproof safe. “Bizarrely, once out of the rock, some fossils are fragile and can be damaged by sunlight.” The rest are stored in a set of “beautiful old drawers produced for the great Victorian collector Lord Rothschild”.
The pièce de résistance of his collection, however, is on display. “A while back I was fortunate to acquire one of the finest British ichthyosaurs – a large marine reptile from the Jurassic period – to come to market in recent years. It’s now in our home overlooking Lake Geneva, positioned in front of a 50ft wall of glass so it appears to be jumping towards the water. It’s very dramatic.” It cost, he volunteers, much less than a piece of high-end art. He won’t be drawn on a price, but in 2009 Bonhams New York sold a 2.7m-long example for $97,600.
Not that displaying fossils in domestic settings is a new idea. In the early 1800s, architect and collector Sir John Soane used ammonites to sculptural effect in the courtyard behind his home-turned-museum. So it should be no surprise that architects, designers and developers, including Candy & Candy and New York decorator Robert Couturier, choose to deploy fossils. Collett-Zarzycki, for example, set a stingray into the bathroom wall of a Docklands penthouse.
Among the superyacht decor specialists to have spotted a resonance between marine fossils – so much rarer and more astonishing than mere shells – and life on the water is Terence Disdale, who has used fossils in several projects, among them Pelorus, which now belongs to entertainment mogul David Geffen. Andrew Winch, too, employed polished panels of cuttlefish-like nautiloids in a black marble matrix (the term for the rock in which a fossil is found) on Slipstream, the 60m yacht he designed for Jack Cowin, founder and executive chairman of Competitive Foods Australia.
Chrysanthemum stones are also proving popular, says Rogers. These feature exquisite 250-million-year-old white celestite- and calcite-flower patterns, formed on the seabed in matrices of black or grey limestone, which give the impression that they are blossoms wafting in a current. Crinoids are in high demand, too. Commonly called “sea lilies”, they were actually echinoderms, more akin to starfish and sea urchins than anything botanical. “You can see the way the wave action played around with them and then left them to settle somewhere on the seabed,” he says, indicating a spectacular 1.8m specimen of two intertwined crinoids, which he has now sold for £55,000, and noting that “they are one of the most sought-after fossils and increasingly hard to find.”
The Evolution Store in New York’s SoHo sold a lesser, though still beautiful, crinoid for $13,950, but its bestsellers tend to be the great teeth of Carcharodon megalodon, an extinct shark. As William Stevens, owner of this endlessly intriguing emporium, says: “The popularity of sharks on television has definitely helped fuel demand for them. Plus the fact that it was the largest shark that ever lived.”
As further evidence of increasing interest in these fossils, in 2013 Errol Fuller, of London dealer Fuller & Gordon, curated the inaugural Evolution sale at Summers Place Auctions, a firm usually dedicated to sculpture and design, where lots ranged from a 12cm fossilised shark’s tooth to a 17m diplodocus. It was again the more modest fossils that exceeded expectation, with a 75cm chrysanthemum stone fetching £8,125 (including buyer’s premium), against a lower estimate of £2,500, and an ichthyosaur’s paddle expected to raise £1,000 realising £2,625.
As Fuller puts it: “During the 19th century fossils of all kinds were in great demand and bought and sold as high-fashion items.” By the 20th century they had fallen from favour, but “recently this trend has started to reverse and we’ve witnessed an increasing appreciation of their intrinsic beauty and wonder”. For “like art”, they “confront the beholder with questions about beauty, style, taste and even the nature of life”.