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An Auction of Prehistoric Proportions

New York house offers up dinosaur bones and other ancient treasures, but many specimens go for well under estimate.

June 25, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Dinosaur teeth, the huge prehistoric jaws of a shark, a 180-million-year-old horseshoe crab and a humpback whale skeleton once owned by the legendary circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum went on sale Thursday in Manhattan.

The idea for the auction was born when Arlan Ettinger -- president of Guernsey's, an auction house known for selling such items as 200,000 pre-Castro Cuban cigars, the entire contents of an ocean liner and wooden horses from carousels -- looked at his 4-year-old son's collection of little plastic dinosaurs and realized there could be big bucks in ancient bones.

Ettinger said that when a group of collectors approached Guernsey's about auctioning off their treasures, the event became a reality.

There was an enticing precedent.

In 1997, Sotheby's sold the almost-complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in South Dakota to Chicago's Field Museum for $8.4 million. It was a single purchase, not part of an auction focusing on prehistoric creatures, as Ettinger planned.

On Thursday, about 200 people sat amid the fossils, skeletons, tusks, skulls -- and empty seats -- on the main floor of the cavernous red brick Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue.

Bidding was brisk and there were bargains galore at the auction's opening session, with many items failing to reach their low estimates listed in the auction catalog.

When the partial brow bone of a triceratops -- a dinosaur with a three-horned face that lived about 72 million years ago -- came up, 6-year-old Eamon Rush stood and held up the numbered card signifying he was bidding.

When he was successful, many in the audience expressed delight. Eamon's mother, Joanna Rush, spent $550 -- $950 below what the catalog predicted would be the opening bid.

Before the auction began, Eamon had told his mother that he would take any bone of a dinosaur. He first became interested in anatomy when he found the skeleton of a deer in upstate New York.

Asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Eamon replied, "An archeologist."

Among the other buyers Thursday were Dr. Michael Baden -- the celebrated former New York City chief medical examiner -- who made several purchases.

Baden bought three bones from an Edmontosarus, a huge lizard with a horny beak and a vegetarian diet. He snapped them up at below-estimate prices.

"What's very interesting is how they are similar to our bones today," Baden said. "We probably have 80% to 85% of the same DNA today as these dinosaurs that are extinct. And it's the most amazing thing how little differences have made big changes."

Another buyer, Barrett Frelinghuysen, walked away with the left fibula of a triceratops. She paid $700, $300 less than the low estimate. The brown-colored bone is a Christmas present for her son, an orthopedic surgeon.

Compared with the specimens on exhibit all around the armory, the huge skeleton of the humpback whale was contemporary -- only 160 years old. But it got into the auction because of its pedigree.

"The whale is not ancient. It really does not fit the definition of the auction," Ettinger said. He explained that Barnum had intended to put the skeleton in a museum, but before its installation the place burned to the ground. It was an occurrence depicted in the film "Gangs of New York."

For more than a century, the 40-foot-long whale skeleton was exhibited at the Niagara Falls Museum, which is going through a renovation and decided to put it up for auction.

"When we heard the whole story," Ettinger said, auctioning it off "became a no-brainer."

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