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Sotheby’s Natural History Auction Has More Than Fossils

Oct 14, 2023

Stones, bones and other enduring curiosities hit the block tomorrow (July 26) in Sotheby’s Natural History auction in New York. The standalone sale, which features a carefully curated selection of fossils, minerals and other wonders, has been an annual affair since 2020.

The inclusion in the sale of two fossil skeletons of prehistoric predators—neither of which are dinosaurs—has made headlines for several reasons, including their rarity and the controversy surrounding the commercialization of rare fossils.

Sothby’s is no stranger to auctions that have the potential to put rare fossils into the hands of collectors. In 2022, the auction house sold a mounted Gorgosaurus skeleton for roughly $6.1 million and a Tyrannosaurus rex skull for about the same amount. Both went to anonymous buyers.

It was a “concerning sale, like they all are,” Lawrence Witmer, a paleontologist and professor at Ohio University, told Observer last year. “When they go into private hands they may disappear, and we may never be able to study them as scientists.”

But while “Horus” the Late Cretaceous Pteranodon (one of the largest and best-preserved yet discovered) and “Nessie” the Lower Jurassic Plesiosaur (the most valuable ever to go to auction) are the standout lots in the Natural History auction—with high estimates of $6 million and $800,000 respectively—the real stars of the sale are the stones, not the bones.

Several stunning minerals are on the block, including a beautiful bicolor beryl from Brazil nicknamed “The Dragonfly Wing” for its unique wing-shaped fluid inclusion and “The Crystal Cloud,” a pair of gem-quality aquamarine crystals with natural crystal terminations on both ends nestled in a cloud of white albite. Another, a tanzanite crystal from the Merelani Hills of Tanzania, resembles a slice of coral reef in the ocean, rendered in blue, purple, red, pink, green, yellow and orange, when viewed head on.

While most of the gemstone lots are on the smaller side—perfect for the typical collector’s curio cabinet—a massive 71-pound freestanding monolith of lapis lazuli and a three-foot-tall purple amethyst and golden calcite geode tower over most other lots. Similarly, a three-foot-wide calcite crystal on druzy quartz over terracotta red jasper geode is a statement piece that, according to the lot description, “gives a somewhat abstract impression of a profile view of the skull of a T. rex.”

Other standout lots include a gorgeous Late Cretaceous ammonite, set on a deep slate gray rock matrix, that contains an opalescent rainbow of iridescent reds, golds, greens, blues, yellows and violets. A second ammonite displays a similar array of vibrant hues but isn’t set in a matrix.

There are also several surprisingly beautiful meteorite slices featuring polished olivine and peridot formed at the mantle-core boundary of an asteroid, a Gibeon meteorite from the core of an asteroid and one of the prized Sikhote-Alin meteorites.

Rounding out the auction are a handful of fantastical gogottes—naturally occurring fine-grained sandstone sculptures that like clouds can resemble nearly anything from a roiling storm to an abstract representation of a woman.