Published: September 5, 2000
The much-publicized auction of the oldest airborne vertebrae known to scientists ended happily for all who had expressed concern about the incident. In question was the propriety of Butterfields’ offering of the seven-inch-long Icarosaurus siefkeri August 27 at a live auction in San Francisco and Los Angeles – and, for the first time, online.
For the then-teenage discoverer Alfred Siefker, now aged 56 and ill according to the Associated Press, the specimen’s earnings will help meet mounting medical expenses, although its $167,500 hammer price (including buyer’s premium) is significantly less than the firm’s $250/350,000 estimate.
For the American Museum of Natural History, where Siefker had loaned his one-of-a-kind possession, and the paleontological community as a whole, the Icarosaurus will be returned to the museum where it was displayed for 30 years. A significant acquisition, because Seifker’s discovery of Icarosaurus proved that vertebrates attempted gliding flight 10 million years earlier than previously thought, and 80 million years before birds flew.
For the real estate developer in San Francisco who outpaced two other bidders to win the fossil, the purchase was an opportunity to demonstrate that he is truly a “friend of the American Museum of Natural History” by announcing his intention to return the fossil to the museum.
And for Butterfields auction house, the happy ending mitigated some of the controversy the consignment of Icarosaurus siefkeri had generated in the scientific community. One vertebrae paleontologist, Mark Goodwin, who is principal scientist at the Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley, told the Associate Press that the sale of the fossil was a “highly unethical event that will only increase commercialization and encourage the theft of fossils from museums.”
But in a post-auction interview, David Herskowitz, director of Butterfields’ Natural History Department, countered that he has a policy against selling anything that is “important to science.”
In the pre-auction swirl of criticism, he pointed out the fact that the consignor had loaned the fossil to a museum for 30 years. “This piece has been completely described and studied, and the museum made a cast of it.”
Herskowitz felt that it was ironic to receive complaints about the auction when the Bergen County, New Jersey site where this specimen and other Triassic Period fossils were found – the Granton Quarry – has been covered over by a shopping mall.
This auction retained the traditional live format Butterfields’ patrons have seen for many years, simulcast in San Francisco and Los Angeles and with phone bidders – with a new element.
“This was the very first auction that we offered people the option to bid online,” Herskowitz says. “We’re in the developmental stages of having online bids during a live auction.”
Although Butterfields is owned by online auction behemoth eBay, the venerable San Francisco auction house’s only foray online so far has been the content on eBay Great Collections. Herskowitz notes that the company’s live format will remain unchanged, but accepting online bids means that “Butterfields can really be a full-service auction house.”
In this Natural History auction, only about five rdf_Descriptions were sold online, which Herskowitz attributes to two factors.
“It is new. There was some confusion,” he says, noting that one bidder, flummoxed by the online registration procedure, decided to bid by phone. In addition, the auction itself was not extraordinary in terms of the percentage of lots sold – 60 percent, or 124 of 200 lots – or prices realized.
“This was not one of my best auctions,” Herskowitz admits. “Usually for natural history, the rdf_Descriptions go way above the estimate. It was the time of year, it was August. Most fine sales don’t take place in August. Originally I wanted this in June, but they bumped me down to August.”
Indeed, many top lots sold for less than their estimated prices: one of the “finest meteorite in the world,” estimated at $60/85,000 sold for $51,750; a four-foot fossil sea lily from the Jurassic Period, estimated at $35/40,000 went for $34,500; a “superb” 5-million-year-old saber-toothed tiger skull, estimated at $35/55,000, was won for $31,625; and an “important” cave bear skeleton from approximately 300,000 years ago, estimated at $30/60,000, was a bargain at $23,000.
The exception was an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) handle from Apollo 11, which was fixed to the outside of the command module that guided astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into the moon’s orbit in 1969. The handle is one of four handholds used during space walks and as tether posts for lanyards to secure astronauts or equipment outside the spacecraft, according to Butterfields.
This one-of-a-kind artifact had been estimated at $20/30,000, and sold for $34,500. According the Butterfields catalog, “To get any rdf_Description from the Apollo Space Program is impossible. Except for this EVA handle, all equipment used in space missions belongs to the United States Government, and it is not for sale. In fact, the only thing that the astronauts own are the flight suits they wore on their missions.”
Charles Barnes, a former radiation safety officer at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center who performed tests on it in the 1970s, kept the handle in a safe after leaving NASA. NASA is investigating whether the sale should have taken place, so Butterfields had to strike a deal with the Office of Inspector General for NASA before selling the handle.
“Because the NASA inquiry is continuing, there is an additional conditional of sale that should NASA decide that the rdf_Description should be returned to them, we will certainly return funds to the buyer,” said Butterfields spokesman Levi Morgan.
Because the handles were suspected of leaking radiation, the three others were destroyed. The Apollo 11 Command Module itself is in the Smithsonian.
This Natural History auction netted $780,000, even though rdf_Descriptions such as a well-preserved nest of 15 dinosaur eggs and a much-touted fuel cell from Russian satellite – “more of a piece of art,” says Herskowitz – didn’t sell.
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