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Fossils As Investment - Good Or Bad Idea?

AJ Plai

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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.



11 Comments


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Megatooth Collector

Posted

Nice discussion. I agree 100%. I buy a lot of higher end fossils mainly because I like to collect them, display them, and learn about them. I try to buy at reasonable prices for the market so that if and when I were to sell any, I could at very least get my money back or have minimal losses. If I a make a few bucks on them one day, that would just be a bonus, but is definitely not the driving force in my collecting. I am sticking to conventional investments for my retirement!

"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!" This is my favorite line from this post... really sums it up perfectly.

"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." This one made me laugh.. very cleaver and true.

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NZ_Fossil_Collecta

Posted

well put. i certainly couldn't bear to buy a specimen if i planned at the same time to sell it at a point in the future.

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NZ_Fossil_Collecta

Posted

if you invested in ammonites and then the value went down then you might be left "dead in the water"

sorry i just couldn't help myself XD

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"Left dead in the water", LOL

This is so true, in the case of Madagascan ammonites price level in Asia. I think about a decade or so ago, the Madagascan ammonites were very pricey here, probably 10 or 20 times what they are now. But after China imported a large amount of them and making China the distribution hub for Madagascan ammonites in the region, their prices dropped down by a large amount. In some cases, it can be cheaper to buy them from China than to buy them straight from some Madagascan dealers! Good things, I only started to recently collect them when they became much cheaper.

PS: Thx for the compliments and input guys. :)

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Aj,

Very interesting blog with a good incisive point of view about fossil "investment", lucky me I haven't get the bug of buying my soft spot ( shark teeth ) , however I collect what I find, and I enjoy the beauty each shark tooth has, especially my Megs and big makos, each has their own personality, I actually won't sell my valuable finds, but one day I will hand them to my girls...I'm sure they will sell them in no time on Ebay. MK

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Excellent discussion topic! It would most likely not work for me because I would never be able to sell them. I think there could be potential for an investment though. (if the right specimens were involved).. Good stuff !! :)

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After starting collecting fossils again I noticed there is no price standardization. Most collectibles have an established market with price guides and an understanding among collectors as to reasonable and unreasonable prices. If online auctions are a measure of fossil pricing then prices dealers ask vary wildly and without an real logic. At the same time on eBay the starting price of an equus horse tooth from florida can be 9.99 to 29.99, sometimes more. An oreodont upper skull in reasonably good condition can vary from 140.00 to 350.00. I bought a really nice one for 50.00. For that reason I usually wait and do comparison shopping.

The point is dealers and collectors don't seem to have a means of judging the value of a fossil. If they were to rely on online auctions they'd be thoroughly confused. Dealers who operate their own website can be worse, more often asking really high prices for common fossils afraid they will sell something too cheap.

So, how could anyone invest in a market that is a non market. There's no way to speculate on fossils unless a person found them or bought them really cheaply. Otherwise, buying and reselling is very risky.

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After starting collecting fossils again I noticed there is no price standardization. Most collectibles have an established market with price guides and an understanding among collectors as to reasonable and unreasonable prices. If online auctions are a measure of fossil pricing then prices dealers ask vary wildly and without an real logic. At the same time on eBay the starting price of an equus horse tooth from florida can be 9.99 to 29.99, sometimes more. An oreodont upper skull in reasonably good condition can vary from 140.00 to 350.00. I bought a really nice one for 50.00. For that reason I usually wait and do comparison shopping.

The point is dealers and collectors don't seem to have a means of judging the value of a fossil. If they were to rely on online auctions they'd be thoroughly confused. Dealers who operate their own website can be worse, more often asking really high prices for common fossils afraid they will sell something too cheap.

So, how could anyone invest in a market that is a non market. There's no way to speculate on fossils unless a person found them or bought them really cheaply. Otherwise, buying and reselling is very risky.

I think fossils when treated (or try to) as investment collectibles are kinda like antiques and taxidermy, not so much like fine minerals which is arguably fossil's closest collectible relatives (being geological and natural history items) since even certain minerals can have something close to be a pricing structure that resembles close to commodity like the karat and grading system as used in fine gemstones.

But with fossils, you get a range of possible value with also a vague range of quality grading which are by no mean standardized or commonly agreed upon with objective quantifiable grading parameter which I see similar things in the antiques and taxidermy market, but probably several other collectible markets as well. Although there are probably a few groups of unique fossils which have their markets cornered or monopolized that probably start to have some sort of price and grading mechanics closer to a being commodity (but still no where near in terms of systematic grading and valuation) like the Korite Canadian ammolites or agatized dinosaur bones which have been made into gem-grade.

Overall, I think its not healthy, and I would even say "dangerous" in the long run for the fossils community whether from the perspectives of dealers, collectors or paleontologist to view our hobby as 'investment-worthy" collectibles that can be speculated and flipped.

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