The Market for Fake Fossils

Every January, the desert town of Tucson, Arizona transforms from a tired college town to an international destination; plane tickets are sold out months in advance, parking lots become convention centers, and hotel owners hastily paint in extra digits on their advertisements. The explanation? Rocks.

The Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Show began fifty some years ago and in recent decades has grown to be one of the largest and most prestigious shows of its kind in the world (more accurately, the event is a smattering of several dozen independent shows). Similar events take place in Denver, Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, Munich, and Tokyo, but the prestige and scale of Tucson make it the most important event of the year for many dealers - not to mention their buyers. As with most things, English is the lingua franca of the fossil world, but the languages of Tucson exemplify  the diversity of fossil collectors . I visited near the end of the 2017 show in an effort to snag deals with vendors anxious for sales, accompanied by my father happy for a breath of dry, desert air after a slushy D.C. winter. There is surprisingly little overlap between mineral collectors and fossil aficionados, and as a result the eminent dealers stick to their respective realms. In fact, the hierarchy at Tucson is well-established, with prominent shows requiring registration and offering valet parking.

The mineral dealers dwarf the fossil merchants at Tucson, and because the crossover appeal is largely limited to casual collectors, it’s easy for those on the hunt for fossils to just ignore the signs for minerals. Although the same strata exist for fossil dealers as mineral dealers, very few shows require admission; location is one signifier, as they range from dedicated showrooms or hotel suites to abandoned parking lots, though one of the most pervasive problems of Tucson transcends all levels of the show: fake fossils. Uninitiated locals turned impulsive buyers - only those au courant with the fossil market stomach the prices just to get there in the first place - are often unaware that fake fossils even exist, and the concept of a ‘fossil underground’ comes across as farcically far-fetched. Driving around the now-bustling town with my father, who has put up with a basement full of rocks for the better part of a decade, even he was surprised at how common fake fossils are. “Why,” he asked as I pointed out another mock-mortality slab of Cambropallas trilobites, “would people fake fossils?” I smiled: years of getting swindled out of allowance money and research went into my answer. “I’m glad you asked.”

Fake fossils can be traced back to the foundations of paleontology, with partial trilobites - marine arthropods known to all high school earth science students primarily as index fossils - cobbled together into fantastical creations finding their way into distinguished museum collections in the 19th century. When the fossil market expanded in the latter half of the 20th century, in no small part to Tucson and Quartzsite (its northern cousin that holds steadfastly to rustic roots), so too did the production of fake fossils. For many fossils, demand outpaces supply (authentic mass mortality plates of the Cambropallas mentioned above can fetch five-figure prices, and are in high demand nonetheless), and the economic sensibility of fake fossils. Why bother collecting and preparing a fossil if you can mold it? An important concession must be made here, as many of the Moroccan dealers - along with Chinese vendors, the most prolific producers of fake fossils - price their product accordingly. Additionally, while they may not advertise their ‘sculptures’ readily, almost all will delineate between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ if asked. Although there are certainly exceptions, at some point the onus is placed on the buyer who believes they got a Mosasaur skull for the price of the crate it’s stored in. In China, laws prohibiting the exportation of vertebrate fossils coupled with a notoriously unforgiving government explain the surfeit of carved or resin ‘fossils’. Savvy buyers are well equipped to spot these counterfeits, but the Chinese dealers I spoke to were less willing to concede that they were selling replicas, but $40 for a Keichousaurus skeleton makes a fine knick knack.

Although fake examples of almost any fossil can be dug up from 1980s collections or strip-mall rock shops, certain species are exceptionally prone to counterfeiting. Every seasoned collector’s list will be different, some holdovers from being burned as a novice collector on an adventurous foray, but the consistently suspect groups are Moroccan trilobites, ammonites, and articulated vertebrates; Chinese vertebrates; Ice Age mammalian material; and as an honorable mention, dinosaurian material. Although fakes are becoming better, most of the ones you’ll find at Tucson require nothing beyond a few hours of research to identify. The giant Cambrian trilobites are morphologically incorrect, while their miniature Devonian counterparts rarely have eye-lenses. The Chinese fossils are pieced together, painted over, risibly incorrect, or far-too-perfect (it’s a running joke in many paleo-circles how wonderfully the Chinese avian dinosaurs imitate Archaeopteryx poses). Ice Age fossils require more familiarity with fossilization and tooth morphology, but the price-tags on such fossils are enough to deter tire-kickers. As for dinosaur fossils which ,along with shark teeth, are most collectors’ introduction to the hobby , the Moroccan composites rarely fool buyers and are nothing more than interesting reconstructions. The larger concern falls on mislabeled and misidentified pieces, and telling a bright-eyed novice that their spendy Tyrannosaurus tooth is in fact a Gorgosaurus tooth can push them away from collecting altogether.

The more duplicitous dealers price their inventory as though the pieces are real  in an effort to acquire credibility, and will go down with their ship when called out. I recognized one dealer in particular, set up at one of the pricier venues, from a now-defunct eBay store where they peddled clearly modern ‘Hohokam pottery shards’. Alongside those same ostensible artifacts were Sclerocephalus (real, but overpriced) and a ‘Metacantena’ trilobite. No such genus exists, and as I was walking by I heard the owner describe how she prepared it herself; the trilobite in question was a clearly Moroccan-prepared Metacanthina marked up by twice its retail value. Had the unfortunate prospective customer continued I would have intervened, but they seemed disinterested enough to not warrant starting an argument. The majority of fake fossils touted as authentic I saw were from American sellers: chakras and dream-catchers, though evocative of the uniquely Southwestern flavor of oddball, are red flags for fossils. So, the natural question arises, what is the problem with cheap fake fossils?

I bring up the ostensible Tyrannosaur tooth from personal experience. Someone paid a bit too much for a dinosaur tooth, but pricing fossils is largely subjective and the buyer is still; showing off their new centerpiece to more experienced and critical collectors results in them learning it’s a different (albeit still impressive) dinosaur. They’re crushed. Now, such an example is unlikely to happen at Tucson for, the fake Moroccan trilobites. Between the price, identical flats of the same cast, and number of veteran collectors to answer questions, rarely will an unsuspecting buyer walk off with a clearly fake trilobite from a Moroccan dealer. This trend is likely to change, as fakes become harder to discern, and most Moroccan vendors have no qualms with heavily restored fossils. It’s a lot more palatable for incipient collections to have restored fossils than fake fossils. The real problem of Tucson’s fake fossil trade rests on resellers. Endemic to tourist traps across the country (and, remarkably, even Mt. Etna), rock shops are where many collections begin and grow. Restoration and compositing is the modus operandi for Mosasaur jaws and Otodus shark teeth (the classic first pieces), and collectors are frequently disappointed to learn the work that’s been done. That’s not enough to dissuade them from paleontology as a pastime, though, and can inspire research into commercial paleontology; the first major piece in my collection was a Moroccan Drotops trilobite from a rock store in Oklahoma City for the almost unthinkable sum of $50 to a ten-year-old (my mother bankrolled the purchase as a birthday gift). It’s maybe 50% original, though it’s proudly displayed in the center of my collection and spurred a plethora of research on trilobites.  It’s a lot harder to come back from entirely fake fossils, and Tucson originates much of the inventory for those roadside rock shops. Although some American buyers are simply naive (a trait benefitting the Moroccans when it comes to haggling), the majority are well aware of the fakes they’re buying, but that information is somehow lost before it reaches the eager elementary schooler.

There’s no oversight for fossil collecting or dealing. In Tucson, there’s nowhere you can bemoan the number of fakes aside from fellow collectors over a beer. This attitude extends across the entire community,, with far too much second-third-fourth-hand information being spread about a collection’s legality, rarity, and authenticity. Oftentimes, this results in the blind leading the blind, be it away from a fine fossil or into a box of plaster. The Wild West of fossil collecting is exemplified best by Tucson itself, where dusty parking lots become home to Darija shouting matches and cash is king even to up-market, swanky sellers. There is a lot to be desired in the structure of the community, but in my eyes the most damaging and urgent obstacle is the perpetuation and proliferation of fake fossils. Given the lack of regulation, aside from just boycotting fake fossil vendors, the most approachable solution seems to be education; a culture prizing scientific literacy and encouraging inquisitiveness, along with educated retailers and easy access to information, will greatly extend the health of the fossil collecting world.

At Tucson, in between haggling over boxes of carefully prepared trilobites and chatting about the show, I mentioned these concerns to Mr. Mohand Ihmadi, whom I met in Alnif, Morocco, in 2015. He attributed more blame to his fellow Moroccans than I did, but agreed with me about education. “The best way to educate,” he gestured at his carefully positioned rows of Hollardops and Barreops, “is with authentic fossils.”