What you see: A pair of mammoth tusks from Alaska that date to the Pleistocene era (which spans about 11,700 years ago to 2.6 million years ago). Heritage Auctions estimates the pair at $150,000 to $250,000.
These tusks come from a bull, or male, mammoth. Did only bull mammoths grow tusks? And how do we know these are from a bull? “The females have tusks, and the juveniles have them too,” says Craig Kissick, director of nature and science for Heritage Auctions. “The consensus is based on size. This pair of tusks has a pronounced horn, with a big curve. Female tusks are straighter and thinner.”
Were they attached to a skull when they were discovered? “These were probably not found with the bone. They were found together, and you can tell by looking that they’re a matched pair,” he says. “It’s a really nice matched pair, with good color and a nice curve. That’s rare.”
How often do matched pairs of mammoth tusks come to market? “They’re much less common,” Kissick says. “For every tusk you find, a matched pair would be a very small portion of the total take.”
The measurements given in the lot notes–68 inches by 40 inches by 5 inches–are a little hard to understand. What do they describe? The number 68 describes the width of the tusks as they appear in the black display armature, which is visible in the picture. The 40-inch measurement corresponds to height, starting at the bottom of the armature and ending at the top of the tallest tusk. The 5-inch measurement should probably be five feet, because it describes the depth of the display from the front of the armature to the back.
You said that the tusks have “good color.” What does that mean here? “They have smooth whites, tans, and creams. The colors are sublime, not bright and bold like some of the others,” he says. “It’s a nice color palette that’s the result of how the tusks were actually fossilized.”
The lot notes say the tusks are in excellent condition. What does that mean when we’re talking about fossils? “With fossils, by their very nature, you’re not going to find what you’d call a perfect fossil,” he says, explaining that all fossils need at least some level of “preparation”, a term that covers repairs and restoration. “These tusks appear to have minimal restoration. There’s not a big chunk of the tip that had to be put back on. There are no cracks that had to be filled with putty or paint. These are in really good condition. That’s why they’re important and have a high valuation. They’ve been polished to make them the most presentable [they can be]. No matter how museum-quality it [a great fossil] is, there’s also a decorative quality that makes it amazing to put on display.”
In the foreground of the photo of the mammoth tusks, there’s a fluffy bunny with a carrot in front of it. Why? “It’s for scale,” he says. “Scale doesn’t always translate from your brain to your eyes. We usually put a brass ingot next to minerals, for context. For things that are really big, we’ve used babies, we’ve used kids, we’ve used people, we’ve used dogs.”
But why a fluffy bunny, this time, then? “The tusks are weird with the armature–it’s not easy for an adult or a child [to get in to the space between the tusks in a manner that works for the shot]. It’s easier to plop a bunny down there, and that’s what we did,” he says, explaining that the rabbit is the pet of a junior cataloger at Heritage Auctions. “For further whimsy, we threw the carrot in front of it, because it doesn’t look like a bunny, it looks like a beast. It behaved well enough not to hop off before we took the picture.”
I’d be tempted to tweak the lot notes to add a jokey reference that says the bunny and the carrot don’t come with the tusks. “People can get weird about it [what’s shown in catalog photos versus what’s actually part of the lot]. You’d be surprised,” he says. “We were half thinking of saying, ‘Rabbit not included.'”
How to bid: The matched pair of woolly mammoth tusks is lot #72194 in Heritage Auctions‘s Nature & Science Signature Auction in Dallas on November 4. As noted above, the rabbit and carrot are not included. Also know that if you live in New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, or California, your state’s laws prevent you from bidding on the tusks. See the lot notes for more.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.