One shop had a large sign outside it saying 'Dinosaur Footprints'. Alan and I dived for the table out front, which had an impressive array of dinosaur footprints. All of them were from the Connecticut Valley, common varieties such as Grallator or Eubrontes, and prices ranged from US$60 through to about US$250.
'Come inside, there's more here,' said the dealer as he noticed us examining the footprints.
We went in and gazed around at tables full of dinosaur eggs, nests containing several large dinosaur eggs and many other fossils. Then we looked at the other dinosaur footprints he had on display. These were mostly more of the same thing, but some were larger, better-preserved specimens. One large slab containing two big prints was on offer for around US$900.
'Do you ever get dinosaur footprints from other localities?' I asked him casually.
'Nothing from Australia, I suppose?' I queried.
'Nope. Nothing from there.'
I then turned towards a large nest of dinosaur eggs, which I thought must have come from China. There was no label on the specimen.
'Look at this great nest of dinosaur eggs from China,' I said to Alan. On hearing my words, the dealer, who was across the other side of the room, yelled out at me, 'No those ones aren't from China. They're from Patagonia.'
I decided to have a look in the large display room of Canada Fossils. The first thing I saw was a magnificent skull of the hadrosaur Edmontosaurus, found in Alberta. The huge head had a pitiful look on its long-dead facial bones, and impressions of skin still adorned the region around the face and neck, signalling that this was no ordinary dinosaur fossil. I introduced myself to Rene Trudel, who runs the business, and he informed me that the rest of the skeleton was out the back if I wanted to take a look. It was a complete skeleton, with the mounted tail visible on display in the mirrored room behind him. I marvelled at its fantastic preservation; not only did the skin impressions continue all the way down the body to the end of the tail, but ossified ligaments held the tail stiff and horizontal. A sketch showed the rest of the skeleton, as pieces in separate large slabs, and how these all fitted together. For US$900 000, anyone could buy this magnificent dinosaur skeleton, complete with soft tissue preservation.
Yes, it was complete. Yes it was extraordinarily well-preserved but, unfortunately, it was just a pleasant plant-eater, not a crowd pleaser like everyone's favourite, T. rex. It would never fetch the same price as a perfect T. rex like Sue.
Rene and I discussed the fossil trade in Canada. He said that new legislation had stopped him collecting dinosaurs in Canada, so he now works with private leases in the
United States. In Canada one can get permits to sell some fossils, such as ammonites (with the beautiful polished shell known as 'korite') or petrified wood, but not vertebrate fossils.
Mike Triebold's stall had more dinosaurs for sale. Two casts of a giant new type of North American oviraptorid dinosaur, fully mounted as ready-to-display items, took pride of place in his exhibit (see Chapter 8). Mike looked resplendent in his black cowboy attire, complete with western-style hat. Mike's specimens were excavated from private land, so there were no legal squabbles over ownership of the specimens. The asking price for a cast of the new dinosaur was US$40 500, but they could be rented out by the month for museum displays, shopping malls, or anyone who just happened to need a dinosaur skeleton on temporary display.
There were several shops trading in Moroccan fossils. Inside one I spied some nice examples of mosasaur (giant marine reptiles) and dinosaur teeth. There were also many beautiful examples of trilobites for sale. I told the owner that we had recently purchased some big trilobites for our museum's new 'Diamonds to Dinosaurs' Gallery, but we had bought them at bargain prices (in Australian dollars) from a local shop in Perth.
'How much would you pay for this one today?' he asked, pointing at a very large and seemingly well-preserved trilobite (a Cambrian Paradoxides). I was wary about it being a composite or fake, as some of the 'doctored' Moroccan specimens look so real that it's very hard to spot them, unless you saw off a corner of the specimen. The resins used to make fake fossils sometimes burn under a whirling saw blade. I told him I wasn't interested in buying the trilobite, but he persisted.
'How much would you pay today?' he asked again.
'I said no, not today, I only want a mosasaur tooth.'
'But today, how much would you want to pay for this one?' he asked yet again, looking at the magnificent trilobite.
'Well,' I replied, 'in Australia we bought a very large one for about AU$180, so if it was around US$100 it would be well priced.'
'One hundred dollars?' he said, smiling.
'Yes, that would be a fair price.'
'Good!' he said, and started wrapping the specimen in newspaper.
'But I'm not buying it today,' I repeated.
'Oh, but today's price would be how much for you?'
I walked away from him and looked at the box full of mosasaur teeth. I picked out a particularly nice one, complete with sharp edges. For US$20 it was a good specimen and it would fit well into our fossil gallery, where we only had casts of mosasaur teeth. He also had a box of broken dinosaur teeth. For another US$10 I scored a rather nice piece of spinosaurid tooth, showing the edges and the internal structure of the tooth. (Spinosaurids were fish-eating dinosaurs with long snouts. The fifteen-metre long monster Spinosaurus aegypticus featured as the star attraction in the Jurassic Park 3 movie, battling with and killing a Tyrannosaurus rex. Ever since then, the trade in spinosaur teeth and bones has been booming.)
A large tent in the courtyard housed the Sahara Overland stall, run by Adam Abdullah Aaronson and his wife Meredith. They stocked a huge range of vertebrate fossils, pliosaur skeletons, crocodiles, mosasaur skeletons, fossil mammals, bits of dinosaur and lots of superb invertebrate fossils: the ubiquitous trilobites of all shapes, sizes and species, as well as nautiloids, a variety of crinoids, fossil corals, exotic ancient shells and so on. I browsed around but there were no fossil fishes to grab my attention.
That afternoon I had been really busy covering as much ground as possible between all the major venues. I bumped into my friend Mike Hammer. Mike is a dealer who has sold specimens to major museums throughout the USA. He asked me if I'd seen the neat Devonian fish skulls from Morocco in the motel room shop.
'No, where?' I asked him, excited by the prospect of seeing something new to science that only I might recognise.
Mike took me to the room full of Moroccan Devonian fish. A perfect little skull caught my eye, one with a high, domed neck area elaborately ornamented with elongated tubercles. It was placoderm skull from the Devonian Period, and a particularly rare variety known as a petalichthyid. As I mentally raced through all the known genera of petalich-thyids (there are only a dozen or so that are well known), I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that this specimen could be a new genus. I knew at once I had to have it!
The shop had two gigantic placoderm skeletons, fully mounted. One was the giant Titanichthys, possibly the largest of all placoderm fishes. The other, a little smaller, was the voracious Dunkleosteus marsaisi. Both specimens were well-prepared (by acid etching) and were impressively mounted. I did spy a couple of loose bones mounted incorrectly and asked the man in the shop about them. When he heard that I was a fossil fish expert he was very excited and asked me about where the loose bits of bone should be fitted on the Titanichthys skeleton. I was still excited by my find and told him I wanted to get a good price on the petalichthyid. He rushed over to the main tent and, minutes later, in walked Adam Aaronson, who shook my hand and greeted me warmly. I showed him where the loose bones fitted on the placoderm (two were actually postmarginal bones that fitted to the side of the skull). Then I asked him about the petalichthyid skull, trying hard not to look too excited. At that point Alan came by, to drag me away to another venue. Mike told me he would talk with Adam, and see if he could get a good price for me on my find, so I told them that I would be back later, and to keep the fish skull for me!
Later that evening, I went back to Adam's shop. I had meant to meet up with Mike, to see what sort of deal he might have struck for me, but then I assumed that they would tell me what price they had negotiated. The original price was US$1500, but Adam said that for US$1000 the specimen would be mine. (He later told me that he had almost sold the specimen in Europe for over US$2400 but the sale fell through, so he decided to lower the price.) I thought hard about it, then asked him if it was quite legal, no export issues involved. Adam assured me it was a legitimate specimen, as he was one of the government-licensed fossil traders in Morocco.
I had some funds I'd raised from private sources tucked away in a museum account, so I would buy the specimen using these privately-donated funds. It would be a major acquisition for the museum's collections, as we had a world-class collection of placoderms from the Gogo sites, but no petalichthyid placoderms.
(Now that I have prepared the specimen out of its rock, I can confirm that it is different from all other known petalichthyid fish, so much so that possibly it could be in its own new family. Acid etching revealed that part of the skull had been restored with body filler and paint, but after removing these I still had the basic real skull to work on. I was very happy with my purchase.) Since then Adam has emailed me with other offers of Devonian fish skulls from Morocco, but these are of a species I know has already been described. I think my find was a lucky one; it's certainly the only time in my life I've had the thrill of walking into a shop and spotting something I know is new to science, and relatively affordable.
Was this article helpful?