Forget Shark Week: Now’s Your Chance to Own a 190 Million-Year-Old Ocean Monster
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Forget Shark Week: Now’s Your Chance to Own a 190 Million-Year-Old Ocean Monster

Wed, Jul 12, 2023 8:18amGrey Clock 4 min

Sotheby’s is selling mounted fossil skeletons of a Pteranodon from the late Cretaceous and a Plesiosaur from the lower Jurassic—both considered fearsome predators—at a natural history auction on July 26 in New York.

The Pteranodon, a flying species that existed some 85 million years ago, is expected to achieve as much as US$6 million. The Plesiosaur, a marine reptile that existed 190 million years ago, could achieve as much as US$800,000.

The fossils continue Sotheby’s foray into selling dinosaur bones. A year ago, the auction house sold a Gorgosaurus fossil for US$6.1 million, and in December, a Tyrannosaurus rex skull nicknamed Maximus also sold for US$6.1 million. Both sales include fees. The latter result fell far short of expectations that the 200-plus pound skull could fetch as much as US$20 million.

Fossil bones of the Pteranodon—named “Horus” in honour of an ancient Egyptian deity of kingship, protection, and sky—were found by an anonymous fossil hunter in 2002 in Logan County in Kansas. The bones had been buried under layers of chalk in the seabed of what was once an inland water body known as the Western Interior Seaway. The water had divided North America into two land masses at the time.

Pteranodon longiceps Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The resulting skeleton is one of the “largest well-preserved Pteranodons ever discovered,” Sotheby’s said in a news release, noting it is also the most complete and highest quality. Also, unusually, most of the original fossil bones are “essentially unrestored” without artificial filler, which the auction said is “especially ideal for scientific study and transparency of authenticity.” Mounted, the skeleton has a 20-foot wingspan.

The flying creature’s skull, however, was created with the help of 3-D restoration to fill in pieces that weren’t found at the site. Filling in missing parts of bone with sculpted epoxies or plasters that are painted to match the fossils is very common in the restoration of dinosaurs, because it’s extremely unlikely to ever dig up a full skeleton, according to Cassandra Hatton, global head of science and popular culture at Sotheby’s.

“You are incredibly lucky if you have half of the pieces,” Hatton says. “You have to fill in those blanks in order to do the kind of 3-D, big T. rexes and Apatosauruses [seen] at Natural History Museums.”

Hatton mentions this as the auction house is selling these fossils in the wake of questions raised about the authenticity of other specimens that have been sold commercially. Perhaps the most high-profile example was the scheduled auction of a T. rex that Christie’s canceled after questions were raised about the specimen’s authenticity. The fossil skeleton was estimated to fetch at least US$15 million.

Clients have become “uncomfortable with the fact that it’s hard for people to tell the

difference, or the fact that unscrupulous people can easily pull the wool over people’s eyes,” Hatton says.

To ensure the Pteranodon’s authenticity is evident, those who prepared it for display didn’t attempt to meld the original fossil bone with sculpted materials. “It’s really clear when you look at it that O.K., ‘this is original’ and ‘this isn’t,’” she says.

The rib cage area, for example, includes a big plate on the sternum that’s original and attached to a sculpted rib cage. But there’s been no attempt to make the rib cage look like actual bone, so what’s real and what isn’t is obvious even to an untrained eye, Hatton says. Potential buyers also will be able to see an osteograph, or bone map, which lists the actual bones in the skeleton, in addition to a site map of the discovery, and photos of the dinosaur bones being excavated

“We wanted to be sure that people understood what was going on,” she says.

The 11-foot-long Plesiosaur Sotheby’s is selling was unearthed in the early 1990s in Blockley quarry, Gloucestershire, England. It was first prepared and studied by Mike Taylor, a British Plesiosaur expert, who discovered that it was a Cryptocleidus, a previously unknown species of the Jurassic, according to a Sotheby’s Paris catalog entry from 2010. The skeleton, which had been in a collection at a private museum in Germany, was sold at that time for €456,750. The current consignor is anonymous.

Unlike the Pteranodon, Sotheby’s doesn’t have a site map or photos of the Plesiosaur’s discovery, because no one at that time probably could have imagined the fossils being sold at a public auction, Hatton says.

The Plesiosaur has been nicknamed ‘Nessie’ in reference to the Loch Ness monster, as many sightings of the mythical beast describe a creature with similar features to the Plesiosaur, including a long neck, small head, and four flippers, Sotheby’s said. Reported sightings of the monster also increased in the years after the first Plesiosaur skeleton was discovered in 1823.

The highest price for a dinosaur skeleton to date is the nearly US$32 million, with fees, paid for a T. rex skeleton dubbed “Stan” in October 2020 at Christie’s in New York. The 39-foot-long skeleton will be displayed at the Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi when the institution opens in 2025.

Visitors to Sotheby’s New York galleries will have a chance to see if they can tell the difference between real bone and plaster casts by visiting the fossils on display before the auction later this month. The natural history sale is one in a series of “geek week” offerings at the auction house that also feature science and technology and space exploration.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

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Wedding planner Sterling Boulet has some advice for brides-to-be regarding lab-grown diamonds, which cost a fraction of the natural ones.

“If you’re trying to get your man to propose, they’ll propose faster if you offer this as an option,” says Boulet, of Raleigh, N.C. Recently, she adds, a friend’s fiancé “thanked me the next three times I saw him” for telling him about the cheaper lab-made option.

Man-made diamonds are catching on, despite some lingering stigma. This year was the first time that sales of lab-made and natural mined loose diamonds, primarily used as center stones in engagement rings, were split evenly, according to data from Tenoris, a jewellery and diamond trend-analytics company.

The rise of lab-made stones, however, is bringing up quirks alongside the perks. Now that blingier engagement rings—above two or three carats—are more affordable, more people are dealing with the peculiarities of wearing rather large rocks.

An engagement ring made with a lab-grown diamond at Ada Diamonds in New York City. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Esther Hare, a 5-foot-11-inch former triathlete, sought out a 4.5-carat lab-made oval-shaped diamond to fit her larger hands as a part of her vow renewal in Hawaii last year. It was a far cry from the half-carat ring her husband proposed with more than 25 years ago and the 1.5-carat upgrade they purchased 10 years ago. Hare, 50, who lives in San Jose, Calif., and works in high tech, chose a $40,000 lab-made diamond because “it’s nuts” to have to spend $100,000 on a natural stone. “It had to be big—that was my vision,” she says.

But the size of the ring has made it less practical at times. She doesn’t wear it for athletic training and swaps in her wedding band instead. And she is careful to leave it at home when traveling. “A lot of times I won’t take it on vacation because it’s just a monster,” she says.

The average retail price for a one-carat lab-made loose diamond decreased to $1,426 this year from $3,039 in 2020, according to the Tenoris data. Similar-sized loose natural diamonds cost $5,426 this year, compared with $4,943 in 2020.

Lab-made diamonds have essentially the same chemical makeup as natural ones, and look the same, unless viewed through sophisticated equipment that gauges the characteristics of emitted light.

At Ritani, an online jewellery retailer, lab-made diamond sales make up about 70% of the diamonds sold, up from roughly 30% two years ago, says Juliet Gomes, head of customer service at the company, based in White Plains, N.Y.

Ritani sometimes records videos of the lab-diamonds pinging when exposed to a “diamond tester,” a tool that judges authenticity, to show customers that the man-made rocks behave the same as natural ones. We definitely have some deep conversations with them,” Gomes says.

Not all gem dealers are rolling with these stones.

Philadelphia jeweller Steven Singer only stocks the natural stuff in his store and is planning a February campaign to give about 1,000 one-carat lab-made diamonds away free to prove they are “worthless.” Anyone can sign up online and get one in the mail; even shipping is free. “I’m not selling Frankensteins that were built in a lab,” Singer says.

Some brides are turned off by the larger bling now allowed by the lower prices.When her now-husband proposed with a two-carat lab-grown engagement ring, Tiffany Buchert, 40, was excited about the prospect of marriage—but not about the size of the diamond, which she says struck her as “costume jewellery-ish.”

“I said yes in the moment, of course, I didn’t want it to be weird,” says the physician assistant from West Chester, Pa.

But within weeks, she says, she fessed up, telling her fiancé: “I think I hate this ring.”

The couple returned it and then bought a one-carat natural diamond for more than double the price.

Couples find that lab-grown diamonds have made it more affordable to get engaged. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Boulet, the wedding planner in Raleigh, got engaged herself, she was over the moon when her fiancé proposed with a 2.3 carat lab-made diamond ring. “It’s very shiny, we were almost worried it was too shiny and was going to look fake,” she says.

It doesn’t, which presents another issue—looking like someone who really shelled out for jewellery. Boulet will occasionally volunteer that her diamond ring came from a lab.

“I don’t want people to think I’m putting on airs, or trying to be flashier than I am,” she says.

For Daniel Teoh, a 36-year-old software engineer outside of Detroit, buying a cheaper lab-made diamond for his fiancée meant extra room in his $30,000 ring budget.

Instead of a bigger ring, he got her something they could both enjoy. During a walk while on an annual ski trip to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Teoh popped the question and handed his now-wife a handmade wooden box that included a 2.5-carat lab-made diamond ring—and a car key.

She put on the ring, celebrated with both of their sisters and a friend, who was the unofficial photographer of the happy event, and then they drove back to the house. There, she saw a 1965 Mustang GT coupe in Wimbledon white with red stripes and a bow on top.

Looking back, Teoh says, it was still the diamond that made the big first impression.

“It wasn’t until like 15 minutes later she was like ‘so, what’s with this key?’” he adds.


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