Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Art and craft

Are they real?

Of course they are... It's an understandable question. Many people don't really see a lot of fossils, and the stuff in the shop is self-selecting to a large extent. It's all material that's nice enough looking to be worth selling, and the first reaction of a good number of customers is one of surprise that such good examples can be sold to the general public. So are they casts? Models? Mr Wood's has been trading for over 20 years, and we wouldn't still be here if we weren't selling the real thing. It's a hard enough market as it is. The same holds true for dealers at trade shows. People trying to sell fakes to veterans of the fossil trade wouldn't last five minutes.

As with everything else, there is a burgeoning trade in fossils on the internet. A great many commercial fossil sites are now well established and many display a thorough understanding of their wares. Prices vary considerably, though. There are some reasonable valuations to be found, but often at the collector end of the scale prices rise exponentially over small degrees of preservation quality. Web-based auction sites certainly provide entry level prices, but have less in the way of unusual material and there are many associated pitfalls. The level of expertise is not necessarily too high, and a great many fakes make it onto this market.

The faking of fossils is a continual blight on the fossil trade, with a great deal of material from Morocco, Brazil and China needing close scrutiny before purchase. There are very few cases of entirely fake fossils; mostly you see embellishments such as exaggeration of fins, replacement of missing parts, the extension of broken genal spines and so on. Once you know what to look for, there are few difficulties in spotting any 'enhancements' and avoiding those examples outside of acceptable restoration. Broadly, Brazilian fakes are very poor and easy to spot, even for the layman; Moroccan stuff needs a closer look and will fool many people, and the Chinese can be very convincing.

The Brazilian fakes tend to be limited to fish nodules with crudely carved tails and dorsal fins, though there are many mesosaur specimens with tell-tale fractures across the rear of the slabs. Moroccan material is more divers - the clever carving of the centre of ammonites, application of resin to damaged trilobites, and insetting of shark and mosasaur teeth into matrix are all very common. Some Chinese preparators have taken their skill to a fine art. While the elaborate painted fins on the two fish species familiar to the market are clear to anyone looking for artifice, the faking of nothosaurs and keichousaurs has developed to the point where it can be difficult to spot unless familiar with the techniques being used.

If in doubt - go with a dealer with an established reputation.


Christopher Walker said...

I found a baby Allosaurus whilst out walking the other day. I brought it home and have been watering it daily. Would it be ethically unsound of me to kill it in order to realise it's monetary fossil value? When did dinosaurs walk the earth, and why do sci-fi movies show men alongside them?

Matt Dale said...

Patience, patience. Fully grown Allosaurus are far more expensive. I suggest you take up sheep farming to help you feed it. I'll do a post about your second point.