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Nature as True Luxury: The Rise of Natural History Auctions

While a rare painting or a jewel is always a coveted object for a collector, the charm of the extraterrestrial or the prehistoric is unmatched. Fossils uncovered from the rugged recesses of the mountains and mysterious meteorites fallen from the skies have increasingly caught the attention of art collectors. We dig deeper (pun not intended) into the rising demand for natural history auctions

Bonhams Amethyst Rose auction

This beautiful, large & impressive Amethyst "Rose" was auctioned by Bonhams for US$22,500


At some point, each one of us has been intrigued by history and also the cosmos. From being fascinated by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park to questioning what lies beyond the galaxies, the curiosities of a layperson are limited to dinner table conversations or watching a Netflix documentary at the most. But that does not hold true for avid collectors and aesthetes who are always on the lookout for the recherché. And while art in all forms is beautiful and decidedly precious, the pleasure of owning an ancient T-rex fossil or a lunar rock is nonpareil. Natural history auctions are a gateway to own the otherworldly wonders – meteorites and fossils so unique that they translate into luxury in its truest sense. 

BEHIND THE SCENES: THE MAKING OF A NATURAL HISTORY AUCTION

The history and origins of these artifacts themselves can be traced back to times immemorial and distances that are beyond calculations. With increase in research and scientific advancements, the curiosities also increased among collectors. According to Mr. James Hyslop, Christie’s Head of Science and Natural History, “Historical highs for the natural history market include the great age of early discoveries and museum building in the 19th century, followed by huge interest generated by the early dinosaur discoveries in 1900s America. By the end of the 1920 this had started to fade and wasn’t revived until interest was sparked globally by the movie Jurassic Park. More recently we’ve seen interest growing steadily over the last ten years, particularly for meteorites and the best fossils.” 

Campo Del Cielo Meteorite auction by Sotheby's

The Campo Del Cielo Meteorite, sold for US$12,600 by Sotheby's, was found in Argentina. This fist-sized specimen shows gently undulating contours of the characteristic regmaglypts (thumbprint-like depressions) with a grey gunmetal patina


Bonhams had its inaugural Natural History Auction in 2012, titled ‘The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities’ offering fossils from prehistoric tropical rainforests and a mounted Psittacosaurus skeleton, to name a few. As wondrous as the artifacts themselves are, tracing their roots form an elaborate process. Mr. Thomas Lindgren, the Co-Consulting Director of Bonhams Natural History says, “The most important aspect of selling fossils and meteorites is establishing their legality, authenticity and originality. This is accomplished by verifying their legal collection, provenance and quality with personal inspection of the individual specimens, using accepted scientific methods. Prior to selection for auction, the processes of excavation, preparation and, if needed, restoration and mounting of fossils and meteorites entails meticulous and varied methods.”

One of the best natural history artifacts ever sold by Sotheby’s was Sue the T-Rex sold to the Field Museum of Natural History Chicago in 1997 for $8.3 million, the most ever paid for a fossil at the time.

Explaining the challenges in the process, Senior Sotheby’s Specialist Ms. Cassandra Hatton, who runs their Natural History auctions says, “The vast majority of meteorites offered to us turn out to be terrestrial rocks and not meteorites at all, so there is quite a lot of sifting through offers. For fossils we must be extra careful because there are export restrictions on specimens from certain countries, so on top of our usual research to determine authenticity, we must also be sure that the items have been legally exported/imported and have all of the proper licenses and documentation. Once we determine that an item is authentic, and obtain copies of any documentation, we conduct our research, write up a catalogue description, photograph the item, and place them in an appropriate auction.”

STAN T-Rex

STAN, the T-Rex, was auctioned by Christie's for US$31.8 million, to an unknown bidder


The artifacts, apart from their provenance, also hold a lot of value with respect to their visual appeal and mystique. Ms. Hatton adds, “Natural history auctions have actually been around for decades; recently, there has been an increase in popularity of the sales as more and more people look to alternative collecting categories, and as more and more collectors view these specimens as pieces of art.”

NATURAL SCULPTURES: THE ULTIMATE ART FORM

As the pandemic restricted us to our own homes, the need to add unique details in our space has become more prominent. And imagine having a dazzling slice from the core of an asteroid studded with olivine and peridot crystals as a display piece for your space. We are referring to ‘Imilac – A Partial Slice of the Mingling of the Mantle and the Core of the Asteroid’ from Christie’s Deep Impact: Lunar, Martian and Rare Meteorites online auction from August 2020. The lots comprised a range of awe-inducing meteorites going back as far as 7 billion years. Mr. Hyslop commented, “We’ve seen huge interest in meteorites recently, and have responded with holding annual stand-alone sales for the category. They really exemplify exactly what collectors want in terms of sheer beauty and inspiring that sense of wonder – who wouldn’t want a natural sculpture formed in outer space?” The record breaking online-only auction totaled a sales of $4,351,750 with 100% of the lots sold and 72 out of 75 lots selling more than their highest estimated price. 

Imilac Christies auction

Imilac – A Partial Slice of the Mingling of the Mantle and the Core of the Asteroid, was auctioned by Christie's for US$4,000


The allure of fossils is just as unique as meteorites for collectors. “There is something truly magical about holding an item that is millions and millions of years old in one’s hand; it puts our own existence into perspective,” adds Ms. Hatton. An approximately 50 million years old fossilized palm leaf frond with fossilized fishes was featured in Sotheby's Natural History Auction in 2010. Forming the semblance of a painting, the fossil is a symbol of prehistoric vegetation in Green River Formation from south-west Wyoming. It is a wonder to own such a flawless, compact and intact testament to history. 

"It is a truly global audience, and each auction tends to see bidding from all 6 continents (not Antarctica yet, but I’m looking forward to that day). The buying demographic is fairly evenly split between men and women, but we do notice more people under 50 active in these sales compared to the rest of the art market."

There are however some remarkably larger-than-life dinosaur skeletons that come alive in the history museums which are also a result of natural history auctions. One of the best natural history artifacts ever sold by Sotheby’s was Sue the T-Rex sold to the Field Museum of Natural History Chicago in 1997 for $8.3 million, the most ever paid for a fossil at the time. Sue is one of the largest, most extensive, and best preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex specimens ever found. For Christie’s, it was the 67 million year old STAN the T-Rex – the 40 feet long and 13 feet high skeleton which was sold for $32 million. The mounted dinosaur skeleton like the T-Rex “Samson” and large fossil specimens often used for interior design were auctioned at Bonhams for a price of $200,000 to $5,000,000 USD.

Crystalline Gold Quartz auction by Sotheby's

"Golden Mile", a stunning gold in quartz specimen, was auctioned by Sotheby's for US$6,930. Found in Western Australia, the butter yellow heavy gold is inter grown with clear quartz. Australian gold is known for its high purity and striking color


THE GLOBAL APPEAL

History and cosmos is the one thing that is common to every demographic. Every country has its own role in evolution. Even with a range of diverse cultures, the nations of the world have been bound by ancient civilizations in the depths of the Earth and a thirst to search if more civilizations exist beyond our galaxies. This global connection is one of the most defining reasons behind the growing demand for natural history artifacts across the globe. The audiences for natural history auctions are not restricted to a specific part of the world. 

Confirming this notion further, Mr. Hyslop adds, “We see buyers coming to natural history auctions from all across the wider art market: Contemporary Art, Old Master Paintings, Jewellery, Antiquities, Rare Books just to name a few. It is a truly global audience, and each auction tends to see bidding from all 6 continents (not Antarctica yet, but I’m looking forward to that day). The buying demographic is fairly evenly split between men and women, but we do notice more people under 50 active in these sales compared to the rest of the art market.”

Sue T-Rex Field Museum Chicago

Sue, the most complete, largest T-Rex till date, displayed at Field Museum in Chicago, was auctioned by Sotheby's in 1997 for US$8.3 million


Ms. Hatton states, “The interest for meteorites is very much global – they are not culturally specific, don’t require any special background or education to appreciate, and of course, everyone around the world has shared in the very human experience of staring up at the sky. To own something that has hurtled to us from space and comes burning through Earth’s atmosphere is exciting no matter where one is from. We see the same for fossils and other natural history specimens – the deep curiosity about our shared past is very much global.” 

2020 shook the traditional idea of luxury and redefined the meaning. Now, the ship has steered towards a more experiential path for luxury enthusiasts. Having said that, natural history artifacts offer the best of both worlds – proprietorship and experiential. Mr. Lindgren comments, “In recent sales, the eye of the art market has been aroused by the beauty of displayable Natural History items as well as by awareness that their long-term value continues to appreciate. From the individual collector, to the buyer looking for a special accent for interior design, to institutions seeking to expand their collections, the appeal of fossils extends across many audiences.” He also believes that meteorites and verified fossils will pave the way for long-term investment for collectors. He further adds, “As buyers’ understanding of the rarity and value of both fossils and meteorites grows, both domestically and internationally, Natural History will become a go-to investment opportunity. A new breed of investor is entering the market, with an interest in long-term acquisition and selection based on rarity, quality, provenance and historical record.”

Amethyst geode by Bonhams

Weighing 14 metric tonnes, 5 metres tall & 2 and a half metres wide, this is one of the largest amethyst geode to be ever offered in the auction market. To be auctioned by Bonhams, it is estimated at US$300,000 – $400,000


While there is always room for debate between researchers and collectors whether natural history artifacts can be counted as decorative elements and luxury items, the history and charm alluded to them will always draw collectors to them. Experts foresee the steadily growing demand for natural history artifacts in the coming months and the auction calendar stands witness to this idea. With Christie’s concluding their rare meteorites auction on February 23 2021, the upcoming May 2021 Natural History Auction in Bonhams is offering some striking dinosaur remains. 

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