Rare ammolite brings $200K+ at Chait natural history sale

“Antique” usually means an item is more than 100 years old. Some collectors, however, aren’t impressed by anything that new. They like their antiques not just thousands, but millions of years old.

They could be found March 21 at the I.M. Chait Natural History Auction in Manhattan, where they were bidding on chunks of meteorites, mammoth tusks, crystals, fossils and dinosaur bones.

Greg Barton, of Manhattan, was buying for his six-year old son, “who, of course, wants to be a paleontologist.” He looked pleased to have won lot 306, two pairs of positive/negative fossil fish from the lower Triassic age of Madagascar. He’d brought his son to the preview, because “it’s more intimate than the Natural History Museum.”

Exactly. No long lines of tourists, no mobs of kids on field trips — just you, nose-to-nose with the skull of a “unicorn” dinosaur, a cousin of the triceratops. Nearby, a world-class gem ammolite ammonite, at 31 1/2 inches across, much larger than the “priceless” example in the Natural History Museum, sat unguarded on a shelf.

Most of the pre-sale interest centered around the unicorn dinosaur skull (lot 354), the ammolite (lot 331) and a monumental, 177 1/2 lb, 10 1/2-foot long mammoth ivory tusk (lot 286). An hour from the finish of the auction there were lots of empty chairs, with only 11 people in the room, but a total of 90 bidders were competing by phone or over eBay Live.

Anders Karlsson, a natural history collector from Los Angeles, travels the world adding to his collection (next stop, Paris). He was there to both buy and sell – 90 lots were his own consignments. For himself he bought lot 296, the fossil of a stingray from the Eocene era. Somewhat sardonically he said that, because of a recent freak accident where a stingray jumped into a boat and killed a woman, the fossil would make an interesting conversation piece.

In the last hour, many of the lots were failing to reach their estimates, but things perked up when the ammolite reached the block. Priced at $80,000-$95,000, the bidding quickly soared past that estimate. Isadore M. Chait, owner and auctioneer, patiently drew higher and higher bids out of two telephone bidders.

“I wish we had two of them, I really do,” Chait said dryly while the bidders hesitated. Still, the price kept climbing. Finally, one bidder backed down and the ammolite was hammered for $220,000. The tense room dissolved into laughter and applause.

Ian Macdonald-Smith of Bermuda was wowed by the ammolite’s beauty. He is a photographer who takes pictures of rocks in extreme closeup and was there to buy lot 163, a large, deep purple charoite box. Gazing at the ammolite, he calculated what taxes and a 20 percent buyer’s premium would add to the bill.

“It’s exciting to be at an auction where something like that ammolite is sold,” he said. “To see it is extraordinary.”

After the ammolite, the second-most expensive lot was  an extremely large gold nugget, for $145,000. The unicorn dinosaur skull was coveted by a Scottish museum, but ended up going to a Manhattan collector for $75,000. The ivory tusk sold for $65,000. (All prices exclusive of buyer’s premium.)

If you were just there for the museum experience, you still could have gone home with a souvenir: three taxidermy roosters at $100, a collection of fluorescent calcite and willemite at $125, and lizard and fruit bat mounts at $125 were the lowest-priced lots.

Claire Roundal of Manhattan, who collects trilobites and ammolites – “little versions of the one that sold,” – was happy with her buy, a large fossil shark tooth from the Miocene era.

“It’s much more interesting than art, to have something this old,” she said.
Jake Chait, Isadore’s son and head of Chait’s natural history department, explained the allure of natural history auctions.

“When kids see a dinosaur skull in a museum,” he said, “it’s unattainable. When someone puts a price tag on it, suddenly people realize they can have it for a price.”

Lots from the completed auction can still be viewed on eBay under the seller name “imchait.”

For more information, call 800-775-5020 or go online to www.chait.com.