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For That Special Paleontological Look

An El Segundo store is selling fossilized plants, fish and bones to those in search of some prehistoric decor.

January 03, 2002|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GeoDecor's showroom in El Segundo perfectly sets up an otherworldly prehistoric mood, a flashback to childhood trips to a natural history museum: black walls, nearly frigid air and overhead lights that focus on dinosaur bones and other fossils, some 100 million years old.

But this is not a museum--everything here is for sale. Not just meteorites, minerals and crystals, but fossilized plants, fish and dinosaurs' bones. A small dinosaur vertebrae on a stand can be had for $150; a large 50-million-year-old fossil palm frond goes for as much as $150,000. While dinosaur and other fossils are routinely sold by collectors at auction and to museums and researchers, it is a relatively new phenomenon for them to be sold to the general public in a retail setting.

"I owned a quarry in Utah with Green River fish fossils that were over 50 million years old. In around 1989, I was approached to format fossil pieces for interior design," explains Tom Lindgren, co-owner with his wife, Christine, of GeoDecor. From there, it wasn't a big leap to start selling dinosaur bones as well.

"See this little guy?" asks Lindgren, his eyes resting fondly on a 70-million-year-old Protoceratops andrewsi with a 17-inch-long head. Looking at the skeleton resting on an oak base, it's easy to imagine that he may have been napping by a dune when was entombed millions of years ago.

"He probably died in a sandstorm, and this is the actual pose he died in. See his legs folded underneath him? This isn't something man created. All we've done is brought out the beauty through our preparation technique." Not everyone has the space or the money for a full dinosaur skeleton--P. andrewsi was placed for auction at Butterfields Los Angeles last June but didn't sell. It was estimated to have a value between $75,000 and $95,000.

Lindgren says each piece is extracted by hand from the site where it is found. Hardeners are used on the dinosaur bones while they are still in the ground so that they don't disintegrate when they hit the air. The bones are then put in plaster casts and transported to a laboratory in Utah, where they are preserved with more hardeners as they are removed from the limestone in which they were found. "Once they are exposed to air, they go pretty quickly unless they are preserved," Lindgren says.

If it seems a bit odd to see a dinosaur outside of a museum, it's quite legal under certain conditions--though not without controversy.

"It's all tied to where the bones come from," explains Lance Grande, curator at Chicago's Field Museum, one of the world's largest natural history museums. "If they come from quarries on private land, they're legal. If they've been poached from public land, they're not," Grande explains. "The buyer must ask for documentation to ensure the legality. Like anything else that's valuable, they can be stolen or faked."

Grande says that learning the locality of the specimen is important since, from a scientific point of view, a skeleton can be priceless with the correct site information, and valueless without it.

There is clear intrinsic value to the pieces on display at GeoDecor. Mounted and polished, many look like abstract contemporary sculpture--even as they connect the viewer to nature and the land before time.

The source of many of Lindgren's dinosaur fossils is a private quarry in eastern Wyoming that he had leased. "The [quarry] was the site of a mass death of duck-billed dinosaurs," Lindgren says. "There was a jumble of bones from thousands of these dinosaurs that had just been washed and piled on top of each other, resulting in a huge bone formation of bones sticking out all along a ravine. Over seven years, we excavated enough bones for 10 dinosaurs. There's only so many you can sell to museums, because most already have them and they are not new to science."

Lindgren has sold a number of the individual bones as decorative objects, such as femur bones or parts of tails mounted on pedestals. "It's quite a conversation piece," says Lindgren. "I mean, who has a dinosaur bone?"

Lindgren is a self-taught paleontologist whose interest in fossils began as a hobby. He's been involved professionally in the fossil-mineral world for 21 years and is part owner of Green River Geological Labs Inc. in Logan, Utah, and a member of the American Assn. of Paleontological Suppliers. Through them he has provided specimens for museums throughout the United States. After Tom and Christine married more than a year ago, she convinced him to relocate to Los Angeles from Wyoming to open the now 2-month-old GeoDecor.

Dinosaurs are a small part of GeoDecor, simply because there aren't that many legal dinosaurs, says Tom Lindgren.

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