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Dead Dino is Art

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personal notes on collecting and appreciating paleontological art

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AJ Plai

Sigmund Freud theorized that the act of collecting ties back to the time of our toilet training. Freud suggested that the loss of control and what went down the toilet was a traumatic occurrence to us human and thus in our subconscious we develop the desire to collect things as a mean to try to gain back not only control but “possessions” of that which were lost so many years ago.......

O.K. if I tried to rephrase what I just shared in a non-academic language is that we human collect because of the trauma we faced when we couldn’t control and keep our poo poo when we were toddlers - man that sounds pretty bizarre (in a funny and entertaining way - no disrespect to Mr. Freud) while at the same time stirred my brain into thinking really deep about the purpose, the psychology and even the philosophy behind our beloved hobbies of collecting, whether they be fossils, minerals, books, etc.

Thus in this blog, I will attempt to share my thought and theories that are my own take on this particular subject. Though I will have to say in advance before you read that this is in no way an attempt to be academic in nature - just pure ramblings for the purpose of my own amusement and if it turns out to be enlightening then all the better! So here it goes:

**switching on psychological rambling mode**

My perspective and belief is that collecting is an act that is stemmed from our human nature’s instinct that reacts towards “Fear” and “Uncertainty”, and there are quite several motives and psychology behind collecting that I believe support this notion:

Fear of Mortality

A collector collects due to a deep rooted fear of mortality and whether if you will be remembered or leave legacy after you have passed away. We can observe collectors of this type who often will go on to donate collections to public institutions or create museums to exhibit their collections. We as human (at least I believe most of us are anyway) desire to be remembered in some ways and thus our collection or what we have contributed will leave a mark in history and in essence immortalize us with our legacy which is our collections.

Fear of Being Alone

Some collectors start collecting as a mean to seek company of like-minded individuals who share similar passions or to experience acceptance as be part of a unique society, group and culture; for we human are social animals that instinctively seek group safety and social belongings or we become lost and terrified. This motive therefore, is also based on our fear instinct that has been implanted in our psyche.

Fear of Non-Existence

I think it’s probably sensible to assume that we all collect in order to know more about ourselves or to remind us of who we are, our interests, our loves, our passions and our nostalgic pasts. Thus the motive of collecting from this perspective is related to our fear instinct. For to remind of ourselves is to reinforce ourselves that we exist while at the same time reminding us of moments of happiness that make us feel alive - and those moments for collectors are the times we interact with and make ourselves surrounded by the objects of our obsessions. In addition we could say that, the act of building a collection creates a type of blueprint of our inner psyche and of a person’s life through the objects the collector acquired and cherished - the experiences the collector went through in his life. Therefore, the act of collecting is the act of painting a portrait of our life stories and our souls, through objects that speak about our love and fascinations. It reinforces our identity, our memories and our existence.

Fear of Uncertainty & Chaos

Collecting as a mean to create meaning to an otherwise seemingly chaotic world. We as collectors collect by gathering groups of objects that form cohesiveness or relationship between the pieces or to tell a certain story behind those naturally unrelated pieces and thereby forming meaning to the collection. Some collectors form collection in response to certain problems or sense of wonder of the chaos presented in front, and by building a collection the collector is able to tackle that problem. For example, a collector might face the question of “How can I represent the diversity of the Eocene mega fauna of North America?” (problem / chaos) and thus the collector embarks on a collecting quest to gather specimens that would build a complete collection of Eocene North American mega fauna specimens collection (solution / order). The act of collecting creates a collection that in essence, becomes the solution to the collectors dilemma. This, I would also say that is part of our deep rooted human psyche of fear of chaos and the unknown, and thus our instinct is to try to limit the chaos by creating orders (or illusions of order) to an otherwise chaotic world (in our perception at least) much in the same ways as how the early humans banded together, formed groups and created cultures or rituals to face the world’s problems or threats. Collectors on the other hands, tackle the chaos by creating order in the collection and in so doing the collector gains a semblance of power and control over disorganization and chaos.

Fear of the Absence of Aliveness

Collecting is without a doubt, a pleasurable pursuit for collector, whereas an audiophile takes pleasure in listening to music, food connoisseur indulges in the enjoyment food & wine, or art aficionado indulge in art appreciation and possession. We collectors induce our senses of aesthetics and pleasure from acquiring and creating collections of objects in order to feel enjoyment. In a way, this could be viewed as related to our fear instinct because we fear to not being able to feel the pleasurable pursuits in life. For we human feel alive when we experience such pleasures, whether the pleasures be from the indulgence of consumable & wearable objects or simply to possess and be surrounded by the things that give us joy like our collections.

Fear of Powerlessness

Collecting can be viewed as an act that I think came from our hunting instinct - to explore our sense of wonder of the unknown, to challenge the goals of acquisitions of hard-to-find objects; this in my view is in essence “the thrill of the hunt”. This particular collecting mindset is also based on our response to our fear instinct for when we hunt, we transform ourselves from being powerless prey to being powerful hunter and dominators - thus hunting (or in essence collecting) is an act to overcome our fear instinct while the “hunting” and while at the same time the journey of the hunt makes us feel alive. Also, when thinking about this motive I think it makes sense as we tend to see many collectors tend to be drawn to fossils of creatures of great power and ferocity or majestic beauty. For some collectors to possess such specimens make the collectors feel the power of those long dead creatures probably in similar manners in how hunters have trophies of their hunt to show their skills as hunters to overcome such beasts.

Now don’t these reasons and psychology of collecting sound much more appealing than Sigmund Freud’s potty training explanation? But, before some may think that “Collecting = Fear” may seem like a degrading notion at first glance, I present to you my next theory:

**switching on philosophical rambling mode**

Fear of Being just another Animal - Collecting to Transcend Humanity

Despite our instinctual fear that drives us to collect, the act of collecting is also an act of human transcendence and transformation. Some collect objects of power to symbolize the attaining of that power or the conquering of such powerful force that ultimately makes us feel more powerful than who we are without the collection. An act of collecting transform us into more powerful being (whether physically, socially, economically or spiritually): a person with no social distinction or significance can become conservators, scholars and even admired icons of historical significance. Collecting can transform the powerless into the powerful, the ignorant into a scholar, a hoarder into a curator and in many cases, turning common man into sage.

Our fear of mortality, uncertainty and instability of our universe makes us human so special and able to achieve our transcendence from mere creatures of survival instinct into creators, innovators, artists, philosophers or sages. Thus it is the shadow that allows us to appreciate the light; the fear of death that makes us cherish the beauty of life; the brutality of our darkest side that gives rise to the reactionary opposites that make us saints, protectors and self-less beings capable of great courage and heroism.

Therefore, even if the psychology of collecting comes down to “Our Fear of Mortality” (death with no legacy or inability to feel “alive”), “Our Fear of Non-Existence” (due to the lack of social presence, acceptance or without a group to belong); that very fear creates motives for us to have “Desire for Transcendence” into something more than what we are. Thus I would make the case that the act of collecting is both instinctual (as a reaction to our deep rooted fear of mortality & physical existence) and spiritual (as a path [and an enjoyable one!] towards transcendence of the human existence).

**switching off philosophical rambling mode**

My goodness after I just wrote all that, I just had an idea that the next time, when I meet people who think my collecting and obsession with eclectic objects are weird, bizarre or non-sensual, I can start quoting my philosophical ramblings that my collecting hobby allows me to transcend spiritually and start going into Zen mode - that’s should be entertaining to say the least, lol. Who would have thought our hobbies could be so spiritually stimulating.

Anyway that’s all for my rambling for today. Hope you enjoy the blog entry :)

AJ Plai

Due to recent topic and discussions about "Fossils as Investment", I have decided to record and save my post into this blog for my own future reference and hopefully others fellow members may find it useful as well. You can see the original discussion in this topic here:

http://www.thefossilforum.com/index.php?/topic/47826-fossil-investments/

With the rise of so called "Passion Investment" or "Alternative Investment" whereby instead of putting your money and wealth into the conventional investment such as stocks, bonds, gold or bank savings due to the recent poor performance on return of investment of such investment vehicle during bad economic times. Thus many wealthy individuals turn to collectibles from things such as art, antiques, jewelries and memorabilia, to other quirky and eclectic hobbies such as celebrity hair collecting, taxidermies and other exotic collectibles as an alternative method of investment and wealth storage. Fossils and natural history collectibles have also been discussed and questioned whether if they are viable or good investment. Proponents of passion investment assert that by investing in collectibles, you can store your wealth into things you can cherish and enjoy, and in with the right collecting/investing strategy - can get good return on investment that is arguably - can outperform the traditional investment methods. While I personally am not convinced that this is so, but in this blog entry, I will attempt to share my view in regards to this issue. So here it goes:

As a collector of eclectic stuff from art and memorabilia to natural history collectibles, fossils included. I approach my fossils collecting very similar in fashion to my fascination with art and memorabilia. I appreciate fossils for their artistic qualities in their natural beauty as well as the craftsmanship of the preparation not unlike the way people appreciate antiques or sculptures for their workmanship, but my collecting passion is also partly driven by the scientific fascination and personal nostalgia from childhood as well.

While I would not recommend anyone getting into fossils collecting purely for the investment potential. I think there may be some merits to approaching our collecting hobbies in similar fashion to how an investor would approach in collectible investing (or as some investors would like to call "investment grade collectible assets"). So I am trying to bring my experience from other collecting fields (mainly art and memorabilia) that I find have been useful in aiding me in fossils collecting, just for the sake of productive discussion and ideas-sharing.

To be a good collectible investor, you need to develop connoisseurship and connection. When I speak of connoisseurship I mean with regards to knowledge such as how to detect good quality rare specimens, how to research provenance and specimens significance in the market - in my art collecting, this would mean knowing the artist profile, their significance in the art world, how their particular work stand in terms of artistic quality and artistic craftsmanship displayed in work, the rarity of the work ("unique original" vs "edition multiples" vs "mass reproduction"). In fossils collecting this would mean being able to identify a good rare specimen, their provenance, quality of prep job and the specimens aesthetic quality as well as potential nostalgic & sentimental qualities. The "aesthetic, nostalgic & sentimental qualities" part can be very subjective since we are talking about a collector's emotional response to the specimen's physical attractiveness and personal preference or attachment to particular specimens based on their life experiences, but I would say these particular aspects can also be quite logical and somewhat scientific as well, especially if you are a collectible investor looking to capitalize on the specimens by selling them at later date. You need to know who are the buyers and why they buy and where or how you could potentially sell your items for profit and under what condition to get the best transaction possible.

Since different cultures may be attracted to different kinds of aesthetics sense or colors palette, for example red color or red iridescence ammolites and ammonites seem to sell better and sometimes more expensively than the rarer green-blue-purple ones in Oriental countries for the fact that red tend to be color associated with good fortune and positive energy in many of these cultures. Or how proboscidean specimens especially tusks or crocodile specimens may be especially coveted in Thailand for the fact that we revere these particular creatures in our culture and in our primary folklores. Chinese fossils collectors also similarly seem to have especially high attraction for turtle and winged reptiles since they resemble 2 of the 4 heavenly guardian beasts - the turtle and the dragon, in the Chinese mythological legend. In fengshui terms, these two particular creatures also signify health, longevity and power as well - making turtles and winged reptiles fossils even more desireble from a superstitious perspective. Some culture may value the ideal of symmetry more than others and thus fossil sculptures or fossil morphologies that display such qualities may appeal more (and also priced higher, accordingly) to those particular collectors from those cultures. I think its also no surprise that carnivores and apex predators seem to rank high in terms of collectors desire to posses these magnificent beasts, whether for vanity or to induce a sense of power, thus the skeletons of predators or specimens associated with these beasts "hunting aspects" like teeth and claws go for very high price in the natural history auctions.

As an investing collector, you also need to study "trends" similar to how a stock-trader must study industries in which they invest in, or how art collectors study the art market trend before they make purchase. In terms of fossils collecting that would be for collectors to know information related to the supply and demand of fossils (any new sites or dealers flooding the market with certain specimens or fakes? or closed sites or bans that would ensure particular specimens won't come into the market anymore - e.g. Lee Creek & South American Meg specimens) as well as new paleontological discoveries that may affect the desire of the specimens - imagine for example if new paleontological discoveries manage to show that Triceratops were vicious carnivore - the price and desirability of triceratops specimens could also increase as a result. One of the sources you could look for these potential desire trend and information are in natural history auction catalogues of major auction houses and also in pop culture media like films, tv & games. I think there is no better example than how the Jurassic Park film franchise and surge of dinosaur documentaries have resulted in the general value appreciation of dinosauria specimens - with Tyrannosaurs in particular. Knowing the trends aspect will help collecting investor identify what's going to be hot, when and where it's going to be hot and plan acquisition accordingly - they do this sort of forecast in the art and memorabilia market all the time and I see no reason why this can't be applied to natural history collectibles.

As an investor collector, its important to develop connections especially in the field of diggers and dealers since you will likely not make much profit from fossils unless you can "buy low and sell high" - that means if you are buying specimens at retail price then you aren't likely to make any profits re-selling those specimens in at least a few years. So unless you know the right connection who could get u quality rare specimens at much lower than retail prices, the chance of you quick-flipping to make money would be very slim - i.e. much better chance at making profits to be a well connected "dealer" who can "acquire" good supplies of inventory rather than being a "collector" who "collect/purchase" (at retail value) to invest.

Most investment collectibles market seem to suggest that u need to keep items for at least 5-10 years to see any significant appreciation and I think this logic can apply to natural history collectibles like fossils just as well. The most difficult part probably, is that you have to sell at the right time when the price is good and the demand is high, but what I usually see in most collectibles market is that collectors tend to try to sell when the economy is bad - which is probably one of the worst time to sell since people will likely not have as much disposable income to indulge in collectibles - meaning these collectors/investors are most likely going to make a loss. Pretty much the only group of people who may still be able to buy high-priced fossils at times of bad economy you are likely only ever going meet them on prominent auction floors, and these people don't buy cheap mundane stuff - they tend to go for big vanity and show pieces to decorate their homes, offices, private museums or galleries. You then need to ask yourself whether if you have those specimens in your collection that you can flip at these auctions to these buyers to make big bucks? Chances are you don't, but if you do you are probably either: a well-connected dealer (i.e. not really an investing collector) or a very wealthy collector who probably buys for passion and not to invest to get rich. If you have the budget to indulge in a mosasaur skeleton, a mammoth skull or a jaw piece of a tyrannosaur (or the many so called rare "investment grade" specimens that go for loads of $$ at auctions) to add into your private collection you most likely already are very rich and don't need to invest in collectibles to become so!!

Last but not least, to be an investor you can't really grow much emotional attachment to your collection which is kind of the anti-thesis of being a passionate collector!! Chances are if you develop such a good connoisseurship and connection to become very good at collecting fossils, your passion will be so high that you will find it very hard to part with your items. The only exceptions are perhaps if you are quitting the hobby, are under financial crisis or are looking to trade up and don't mind selling some old stuff to get something newer and better.

Having said all these, I think its a bad idea to get into the hobby purely from an investment perspective, but you can develop an investment-oriented mindset to help you be more knowledgeable in the market so you can detect good specimens at good deals. Buy smart, collect from the heart and if the collection turn out to appreciate in value after all the years then consider that a bonus! Most top passionate collectors in many collectibles fields (and I believe at least a number of top fossil collectors are among them) seem to end up with collections that are worth more than what they originally paid for not because they were intent to collect to invest, but they collect because of the passion with great connoisseurship accompanied by smart knowledge.

If anyone is looking to invest in fossils to get rich, I would suggest invest in fossil fuel instead, they will probably have a much better chance.

Just my 2 cents.

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