When the subject of natural history comes around, it often conjures in people's minds images of boring college lectures and nerdy "rockhounds" with agate bolo ties. And, having gotten two geology degrees earlier in life, I can attest that those images are not always inaccurate ;-) But make no mistake: there is a thriving market for important geological specimens... think "trophy fossils"... among deep-pocketed collectors.
Chief among the most sought-after specimens are dinosaur skeletons, especially predators like T rex. These skeletons can bring millions of dollars at auction, which is plenty of incentive to loot from public lands or bring in specimens illegally from other countries. China and Mongolia in particular have yielded some amazing specimens but also have essentially banned the export of significant vertebrate fossils. More than one dealer in the US has been caught trying to sell smuggled specimens and gone to jail for their troubles.
Another problem with the market for high-dollar fossils is the incentive to fake items. Morocco has been a hotbed for years of fake fossils, even down to the level of specimens that would normally sell in the low hundreds. China is another major source of fakes, especially small vertebrate fossils and trilobites. Speaking as a long-time fossil collector, I will share that I generally will not buy anything that has either country as a point of origin. That is not to say that some of the specimens aren't legitimate... instead, for me, the risk of buying a fake just outweighs the possibility of getting something good.
Even if you aren't a collector per se, fossils and minerals can still serve as eye-catching objets d'art or decorative accessories. Should you decide to add one or more to your decor, here are a few tips to consider:
First, as with a nice antique or piece of art, always try to deal with a reputable seller who can give you the relevant information about a piece, including any repair, restoration, or enhancement. By "enhancement" I refer to fossils being added to a plate (often referred to as "dropped in"), stained or painted in, or in some cases (hellooo Morocco) completely made up. Second, avoid specimens from "problem" sources like Morocco and China (see my previous comment). Third, research before you buy to make sure you are not wildly overpaying. Some items such as Megalodon shark teeth, have significant nuances in pricing relative to size. A 3" tooth may sell for $60 but a 6" tooth will usually sell for at least $400. With shark teeth in particular, size matters!
In closing, here is a link to a fascinating video that recently appeared on the Wall Street Journal's web site. An excellent look into the public-private debate and one that will give you an idea of some of the values being assigned to trophy fossils these day.
Bryan H. Roberts is a professional appraiser in Sarasota, FL. He is a member of the Florida State Guardianship Association, the Sarasota County Aging Network (president), and is certified in the latest Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practice (USPAP) Equivalent