Iconic American saber-tooth leads $1.7 million Natural History event at Heritage

DALLAS – A saber-toothed tiger skull was the prized artifact, commanding more than $334,000 at a May natural history event at Heritage Auction Galleries.

A famous meteorite also brought more than $50,000, and an azurite more than $143,000.

The 95 percent intact Smilodon or saber-tooth tiger skull sold at auction on Sunday, May 17, for $334,600 (including buyer’s premium) as part of Heritage’s Signature® Natural History event. The event total, with post-auction buying continuing, currently sits at $1.7 million.

In the realm of American fossil collecting, there is no specimen more iconic, or highly prized, than the distinctive saber-toothed tiger. Of those saber-toothed skulls that do come on the market – a once in a decade occurrence, if that – there is no more important designation than an original in California’s fabled La Brea Formation. The skull that crossed the auction block had the distinction of being an almost complete specimen, but it was its La Brea provenance – it was uncovered in the 1960s by a “weekend” collector – that fired the imaginations of bidders and brought the $334,600 price tag.

“Without a doubt this is the finest specimen to ever appear on the market,” said David Herskowitz, director of Natural History at Heritage. “It originated in the Wilshire Hauser Tar Pit, located directly across the street from the original Tar Pit discovery at Rancho La Brea, probably the single most important Late Pleistocene locality in North America.”

The La Brea Formation is renowned for its extensive collections of well-preserved mammals and birds, as well as numerous insects, gastropods and plant remains. Carbon dating set the date of these fossils at approximately between 12,000-20,000 years old.

An exceptional array of minerals also highlighted the auction at Heritage, and chief among the pieces that garnered the attention of collectors was a an exceptional cluster of Water-Clear Flourite on Pyrrhotite from the Dal’negorsk area of far eastern Russia, which realized $167,300 after intense bidding via HERITAGE Live!, Heritage’s proprietary real-time online bidding platform.

“The various mines of the Dal’negorsk area are host to a diverse and exceptional suite of minerals,” said Herskowitz. “The Fluorite and Calcite specimens are world renowned, especially the lustrous, simple cubes of undamaged water-clear Fluorite, like this one, that have been pried from the walls of fissures in the ore-bodies. This particular treasure has few peers anywhere in the world.”

The famous “Garza Stone,” also known as the Park Forest Meteorite, was the subject of much attention going into the auction, with major articles appearing in both major Chicago daily newspapers, as well as a much listened-to interview airing on NPR between Herskowitz and All Things Considered host Robert Sigel. When the talking and reading was finished, and the bidding began, the “Garza Stone” found a new home with an anonymous buyer for $50,190.

It’s unusual for a meteorite to gain title to its own name, but this now-famous meteorite earned its moniker after the havoc it caused when it crashed through the house of Noe Garza at 426 Indiana Street, Park Forest. Noe’s 14-year-old son Robert was abruptly awakened when the 2.7 kilogram mass crashed through his bedroom ceiling, missing his head by a mere few inches. It smashed through roof tiles, plywood and 2 x 4 joists, ricocheted from ceiling to window to mirror-fronted closet and finally came to rest in the middle of the bedroom. The damage was sudden, shocking and extensive, and Robert curled up in fear on the other side of his bed, the only undamaged part of his bedroom. The lot came replete with pieces of the damaged apartment interior.

“This is an historic piece,” said Herskowitz, “and we’re thrilled to be a link in that chain of history.”

Other highlights of the auction include:

Historic Azurite, Tsumeb Mine, Tsumeb, Otjikoto Region, Namibia, $143,400: With the flooding and subsequent closing of the fantastically prolific locality at Tsumeb, Namibia, large Azurite specimens such as this one are becoming not only increasingly rare but increasingly valuable, as evidence by the spectacular price. The phenomenon can be likened to what happens in the art world when a renowned painter dies: the number of extant works becomes fixed and values start to appreciate. With its historic provenance – it carries a Smithsonian Roebling Collection label, #R08495, indicating that it is a very early specimen indeed – this Azurite was a much sought after piece.

Very Fine Cassiterite, Beryl-Scheelite deposit, Mt Xuebaoding, Pingwu Co., Mianyang Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China, $143,400: While many minerals contain tin, only Cassiterite, the mineral form of tin oxide, occurs in enough quantity to be of greater economic significance. Crystallized pieces of Cassiterite, however, are considerably rarer and are typically small and usually damaged in mining.

Dinosaur fossils, always a specialty of the house and an important longstanding component in the success of Heritage Natural History auction, may have been overshadowed a bit by the saber-tooth tiger controversy and a wider discussion of the “Garza Stone,” but buyers-in-the-know were still keen to pick up the exceptional examples that appeared in the event. Among the two best were two exceptional dinosaur skulls:

A beautiful “bird-dinosaur” skull, or an Oviraptor philoceratops, $47,800: This specimen originated in Central Asia, presented collectors with what is easily one of the finest and most spectacular examples ever seen of this species of carnivorous dinosaur. The skull was virtually perfect, with barely 1 percent restoration, and nearly every bit of it has been carefully prepped free of the rock in which it was entombed for more than 70 million years. One professional described this specimen as “breathtaking,” while another famous paleontologist called it “one of the best Oviraptorosaur skulls I’ve ever seen.”

A rare crested dinosaur skull, or Saurolophus angustirostris, $38,240: Saurolophus was a huge herbivorous dinosaur that is one of the few known to appear on more than one continent. All teeth are intact and original, as is the entire central core.

For more information on this auction, to view the entire catalog or to see fully enlargeable images of each lot, go to www.ha.com.