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Bidding on nature's relics

Ancient treasures, including a fossilized walrus penis, go on the block at I.M. Chait in Beverly Hills.

August 27, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

It was trapped under the Siberian permafrost for more than 12,000 years and discovered by fossil hunters who at first mistook it for a mammoth tusk.

But on Sunday, the 4 1/2-foot-long fossilized walrus penis -- believed to be the world's largest specimen -- was the most talked-about piece of natural history up for bids at I.M. Chait in Beverly Hills.

The prehistoric phallus sat on a metal display stand, curving to a narrow point. An attendant stood watch over it.

The bony specimen from the Pleistocene, known as a baculum, is so well-preserved that it still has an intact layer of weathered skin. Also known as oosiks, the bones are used as clubs by Inuit hunters.

The question of the day: Who shelled out thousands for the prehistoric phallus?

Believe it or not, it was Ripley's, the chain of oddity museums, whose owners made the third and final bid of $8,000 over the phone from Orlando.

And although the piece will cost Ripley's $9,600 when the auctioneer's commission is added on, it was still a bargain compared to the $12,000 to $16,000 that Chait had hoped to get.

"I was prepared to spend at least twice, probably three times that amount," said Edward Meyer, vice president of exhibits and archives for Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Why, some might ask?

"This one is considerably bigger than anything we've seen before. When it comes to fossils, size matters," Meyer said, confirming that the new addition to the Ripley's collection was destined for a warehouse in Orlando for a detailed examination, then to one of its 30 museums across the globe.

Ripley's already has 20 walrus penises in its collection, and none of them measures more than 2 feet long.

Meyer suspects that what he has purchased may not have belonged to a walrus.

"I am not familiar with any prehistoric walrus, but certainly for a modern-day walrus it's far too large," Meyer said, adding that he suspects that it may, in fact, be a whale's penis.

"We're very pleased that it's going to Ripley's so that the public can have an opportunity to see it," auctioneer Josh Chait said. "There's a limited clientele for a piece like that. Not everyone's going to want to put it on their mantel."

But for all the talk, none of the dozens of collectors who came to the auction in person, who drove up prices bidding for dinosaur eggs, gold nuggets and meteorites, bid on the penis.

For many who treasure unusual, natural-history curiosities, a piece of such suggestive detail might be the kind of conversation piece they are looking for.

"No matter what the price, I'm not bidding on that," said Richard Kosta, a Los Angeles fossil and mineral collector. "I don't know if it's something you'd want to display in your house."

Nearly 200 other objects found new owners at the auction, including a mummified Egyptian falcon, a 6 1/2-foot narwhal tusk and a 1.94-gram piece of the moon that arrived to Earth via meteorite.

And although the walrus penis was in the spotlight for its immense size, another X-rated find was noted for its puniness.

"It's so tiny," said Sue Johnson, a collector straining her eyes to see the intimate details of a pair of amber-entrapped houseflies from the Baltic Sea locked in an amorous embrace for eternity. "You have to be over 18 to look at that one," quipped auctioneer Isadore Chait, before the love bugs sold for $1,100.

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