Dangerous Waters! Buying and Selling Artifacts and Collectible Antiquity

Wandering in the “Grey Area” Between Looting and Archeology…

“My favorite find this year!”– a huge whale vertebra fossil.

Imagine this – you go to your local Friday night antiques auction with no plans to buy anything specific; an old stone fountain garden statue comes up for sale, and no one bids, so you scoop it up for twenty bucks. You figure it would look good in your herb garden out back.  A few years later, you grow tired of it, and you put it up for sale on Craigslist.  The next thing you know you are being investigated for buying black market artifacts and helping to fund the bad guys.

This Italian newspaper had their front page plastered with photos of looted treasure that had been seized on the international black market.

That story isn’t typical, but it is certainly possible. At the very least, you’d have to prove that you had no idea where the statue originally came from and prove where you bought it so the authorities could follow the trail further.

At WorthPoint, we help you research, identify, and value items which are at least one of these three things: collectibles, antiques, and/or antiquities.  That third category, “antiquities,” is the most poorly defined of the three, being described in Merriam Webster’s as “an object, building, or work of art from the ancient past.”  So here we find a broad range of collectible items such as Middle East statues, coins and tokens, Native American art, arrowheads, tools, and also animal fossils, which can be valuable, collectible, and certainly “ancient.”

We WorthPoint writers often submit an article featuring our “Find of the Year.”  It’s usually a treasure that we found at an estate sale or hidden away at a flea market; but, I’m betting that my personal “Find of the Year”  happened just last week here in Maine. 

I was walking a private beach that I have permission to walk in search of sea glass. I was already having a great day because I just picked up a nice, inch-long, cornflower blue piece, perfectly smoothed over in jewel grade condition. 

This fossil of a whale vertebra washed ashore amongst the rocks a week ago when I found it, or a million years ago, I’m not sure yet!  A marine biologist is currently researching it so that I’ll have an idea of its age and species. For now, I’m using the vertebra to display my collection of embossed “Sperm Sewing Machine Oil” bottles, circa 1890s.

As I continued up amongst the large boulders, down in the wet sand, I spied what looked like a piece of rounded driftwood, about a foot in diameter.  But it had a strange texture to it, like it was petrified, or made of some sort of fiberglass or something.  I dug around it and pulled it up and found myself holding what was obviously some sort of fossil.  When I got it home, a quick Google search helped me discover that what I had was a large, exceptional specimen of a fossilized whale vertebra!

I spent some time looking at whale bone skeletal charts online. The whale vertebrae shown, had wing shaped bones protruding from the sides, called “processes.” These dramatic looking wings add form and decorative value to one of these pieces.  The examples of fossilized whale vertebrae I found online didn’t have these wings; they were usually completely worn off, like the example I discovered on the beach.

The vertebrae I found on eBay and other sites that did have these processes were listed for sale as “vintage whale bone.”  Generally, these were white in color and were said to be between 50 and a couple hundred years old. The more dramatic these “wing bones” were, and the larger the size of the vertebrae, the more of a statement piece of decorative art they seemed to be and the higher their value climbed.

These two old whale vertebrae sold for $99.95 in Feb. 2018.

The ones listed as “fossilized whale vertebrae” were said to be usually between one and five MILLION years old, and had a darker, sometimes reddish toned coloration.  The value of these fossils like mine, seems to be more determined by the amount of fossilization, and the overall weight of the piece.  The beautiful one I found appears to be a terrific one!

I’m not interested in selling my find, but I’m human, and it’s always fun to know the value of what you have found in a case like this. All things considered, it might bring a couple hundred dollars.

But, as I perused the internet searching “fossil values,” an article cited multiple times involved a famous discovery. It is called Tussling over “Tinker” the Tyrannosaurus and is one of several articles chronicling the court battles over the ownership of a rare juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex discovered on a ranch in South Dakota in 1998.  This was no $200 whale bone that washed ashore.  This was closer to a $9,000,000.00 complete skeleton, and everyone wanted a piece of it!

It got me to thinking about the grey area between my whale bone find on the beach and the mega dinosaur discovery in the Dakotas, in terms of “who owns what, and why?” And trust me, there isn’t a solid consistent rationale that runs through it all; it changes completely, once you begin adding zeros to the value of the discovery.

In my hobby of bottle digging, if the average Joe is walking down the street and picks up a Coke bottle tossed from the road onto someone’s lawn, and he cashes it in for a nickel, no one is going to begrudge him his nickel. But if that Coke bottle turns out to be a “one of a kind,” one marked with a specific city on its base, there is a chance it could be worth a thousand dollars. So, all of a sudden, he has picked up a thousand bucks off of someone’s yard. Someone might have a problem with that.

In other words, for all of these antiquity type collectibles, there are laws and regulations addressing each situation in great detail.  But it isn’t until the big money starts rolling around that “legality” even comes up.

In the case of my whale vertebra, the issue is whether or not it is a whale bone or a whale fossil.  There is a terrible black market worldwide involving animal parts of endangered species, rhino horns, elephant tusks, etc. We’ve all seen the documentaries about poaching, and how those objects have a market, and without that market, those animal parts wouldn’t be taken in the first place.

These poached rhino horns were seized in Mozambique. Animal poaching like this has destroyed wildlife and involves criminal activity with serious consequences.

All online selling sites including eBay strictly forbid the sale of these items, thank goodness. But fossils have guidelines that are less strict. There is a certification process in some cases, just to keep track of important discoveries, to help record where items were recovered for research purposes, and to police the sites where actual excavation of fossils is happening.

Native American relics, weapons, and tools are other categories of collectible items where laws and regulations need to be paid close attention.  On eBay, if you sell an item with the word “Indian” in it, you will be warned with a long page of regulations and terms of agreement letting you know the many legalities involved in buying or selling Native American items. There are many reasons for this, and like most of the categories I’m writing about today, you could write a long book about each.

These beautiful “Clovis” type arrowheads were discovered by collectors in the Central U.S.  Each of these is a choice specimen and can bring hundreds of dollars at auction, which can create cross interests with archeologists and historians.

Finding an Indian arrowhead is an amazing feeling. Some of them can be worth thousands of dollars to collectors if the specimen is made from a rare stone, is especially large, or has some special characteristic that sets it apart. There is a bluegrass song you can look up on YouTube titled “Banded Clovis” by Tyler Childers, which has amazing lyrics about two friends who have a fatal fight over an arrowhead (a banded Clovis type) that one of them dug. It’s a great song, and based on the detailed lyrics, it had to have been written by someone who has a passion for this fascinating pursuit!

It’s a strange and fascinating conundrum to deal with items that were “found, dug, or salvaged” and that have monetary value to them. In my years of digging and diving, I haven’t yet discovered a million dollar find, but if I do, I’ll be happy to deal with whatever issues come up!


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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