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The Nation

Recasting Treasures as Trinkets

The Museum of Natural History lends its stable of scientists to New Yorkers for a day.

March 15, 2004|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Think of it as "Antiques Roadshow," but with some antiques a million centuries old.

Hundreds of New Yorkers, bearing things from dinosaur bones to Balinese figurines to a dead box turtle, descended on the American Museum of Natural History over the weekend for the museum's 15th annual "Identification Day."

It was a chance for people to have their curios validated as treasures -- or, more commonly, unmasked as junk -- by anthropologists, paleontologists, entomologists and other experts from the 200-member scientific staff of the museum, a sprawling, 135-year-old landmark adjacent to Central Park.

For several hours Saturday afternoon, the scientists camped behind folding tables in the museum's Hall of Birds of the World, a classic, Victorian-era exhibit hall with large, glass-enclosed dioramas of stuffed Andean condors and other exotic birds in their natural habitats.

Visitors toting artifacts in backpacks, milk crates and paper bags stood in line hoping for a favorable opinion.

Illusions die hard on Identification Day.

It wasn't easy for Mickey Tinter, for example, to accept anthropologist Anibal Rodriguez's verdict that an item from Tinter's collection -- an egg-shaped metal object with markings carved deeply into its surface -- more likely dated to 20th-century Iraq than to ancient Greece or Egypt and was more likely iron than brass.

Rodriguez agreed with Tinter that the object was a kind of stamp, which could be rolled across a strip of soft clay to emboss it with a "negative" of the carved image. The clay then could be baked to create a brittle yet durable frieze.

"I still think it's ancient," Tinter, a New Jersey gold dealer, said afterward, returning the egg to its velvet pouch. He said he planned to follow up on Rodriguez's suggestion that he go to the antiquities department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a second opinion.

Some of the scientists tried to let the collectors down easy, but not Rodriguez.

"A tourist piece," he'd say when presented with a wood carving or an ornamental spear. "Nothing special.... Quite common," he'd pronounce as crestfallen collectors filed away from his table.

One young man seemed particularly chagrined to have his trove of oddly shaped stone objects -- calling to mind prehistoric weapons, tools or religious artifacts -- identified as nothing more than a box of weather-beaten rocks.

But Kathleen Towning got Rodriguez's attention when she unwrapped what looked like a wool saddle blanket she'd acquired on a trip to Arizona. It was off-white with a brown border and a raspberry-colored sawtooth pattern across the middle.

"This is really quite fine," Rodriguez said, identifying the piece as an unusual Native American "eye dazzler," probably woven from goat hair by a tribal artisan in Arizona or New Mexico.

The scientists were careful not to offer value estimates -- Identification Day is meant, after all, as an educational event, not a commercial one -- but Rodriguez thrilled Towning by suggesting that she take the blanket to Sotheby's, the tony auction house, for an appraisal.

"I've been waiting for this day for months," gushed Towning, a Santa Fe Springs, Calif., native now living in New York.

Meanwhile, over at the entomology table, volunteer Thomas Sullivan was playing with a fist-sized tarantula -- a female Chilean rosehair, he said -- that had been left for adoption by a visitor who'd bought it as a pet but no longer wanted to care for it.

Sullivan offered to let onlookers handle the slow-moving, furry creature, but he had no takers. Tarantulas are all poisonous to some degree, he explained, but this species was quite gentle, and even if she were to attack, her bite would do no more harm than a bad bee sting. Still no takers.

Dekun Wang, a 25-year-old accountant from New York, brought some of the gems of his collection to the paleontology table, where museum staffer Carl Mehling presided.

There, in shallow, glass-topped boxes were the well-preserved bones of an immature Psittacosaurus, or "parrot lizard," a hook-beaked vegetarian that lived in northeast China in the early Cretaceous period, perhaps 110 million years ago.

Wang didn't need confirmation from Mehling. An avid collector for several years and a dinosaur enthusiast since childhood, he was sure of what he had. Wang had come mainly to see some of the museum's specimens and to show off his own collection.

"My first customer," Mehling said of the early-arriving Wang. "It already looks like a good day."

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