What you see: A coelacanth fossil from Painten, Germany. Summers Place Auctions estimates it at £30,000 to £50,000, or $38,800 to $64,700.
The expert: Rupert van der Werff, director of Summers Place Auctions.
Why is a coelacanth fossil a big deal? The coelacanth is quite a famous animal. It was known from examples in the fossil record that are more than 400 million years old. In 1938, one was spotted in a fish market in South Africa. Since then, living specimens were caught, and the coelacanth became a cause celebre in the world of natural history.
A cause celebre in the world of natural history? How so? It’s a crossover animal. It’s believed the fish derived from amphibians, because of the fact that its fins are so short and muscular and not designed for actual swimming. It walked as much as it swam. It gives insight into the emergence of an important group of animals in our current world.
How do we know this fossil is a coelacanth? By its general makeup and appearance, and by where it was found on the fossil record timeline. Coelacanths are pretty unique. It has quite a bony skeleton. Its skull is pretty massive and its fins are pretty short and stocky. It’s not a terribly streamlined animal. It’s a bit of a plodder and [lived] toward the bottom of the sea.
The lot notes describe this coelacanth fossil as “impressive”. What makes it so? For its completeness and its size. This is quite a big specimen, as far as coelacanths go. [It measures 46 centimeters, or 18 inches, in length.]
Is it possible to tell how old the coelacanth was, or what its sex was, by examining the fossil? I don’t believe so. Coelacanths are rare. More T. rexes have been discovered than coelacanths. There’s not that much knowledge to bear. I couldn’t tell you if it’s an adult, or tell you its sex, and I don’t think anybody could.
What can we reasonably tell about the coelacanth fossil just by looking at it? It’s complete. It wasn’t attacked by a predator. As far as I can see, there’s no signs of it being diseased or unhealthy. Exactly what it died of, I can’t say.
Living coelacanths have been caught. Do they look a lot like this coelacanth fossil? Yes. It’s a successful design for what it was doing. There was no need for it to change.
This coelacanth fossil came from Painten, Germany. Where is Painten? It’s an hour away from Munich, in Bavaria. The rocks are composed of really fine sediment. It’s pretty phenomenal stuff for fossils. You couldn’t hope for more. The fine sediment produces the best resolution as long as the conditions are compatible.
When was this coelacanth fossil found? In 2017, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a good specimen. Modern techniques for preparing fossils are so much better than the older ways of doing it. You can really reveal what lies within the stone.
I imagine we should probably stop here and explain that it’s not as if the coelacanth fossil was hanging around, exposed, just waiting for someone to stumble on it. How was it recovered? An expert paleontologist knows what layers of a quarry are likely to yield fossils, and pays particular attention to those layers. If the expert sees an anomaly in a layer, that’s possibly a fossil. They collect the rock around it and work on it later with fine dental tools, hoping that something is in there and they got it all. It’s like searching for treasure.
Is that area of Germany a known source for coelacanth fossils? In terms of numbers, I don’t know. I know the big ones are jolly rare. The availability of fossils in general fluctuates. Some are always rare, and this fits that category. If coelacanths were more common when they were alive, more would have been found by now.
What is the coelacanth fossil like in person? I suppose it almost has an attitude. It does have a bit of a character to it. It looks almost sad. It’s quite unusual to be captured in a lump of stone, but to me, it has an emotion attached to it.
Kind of an Eeyore sensibility? Yes. It looks a bit like it knew it was the end. Resigned might be another way to put it.
Was this coelacanth fossil found alone, or were there other coelacanth fossils near it? And are coelacanths, living or fossilized, found alone, or in schools? Usually alone. Maybe that’s a reason why it looks sad.
Have you held the coelacanth fossil? It’s quite a big plaque–probably 50 or 60 pounds–so it’s quite heavy. You wouldn’t hold it up to admire it for very long. But I’m an enthusiast for fossils. To get my hands on something as exciting as this is a real treat.
Does it feel rough, or smooth? Pretty smooth, because the particles it’s composed of are so tiny. It’s almost like holding something made of plaster of paris, or chalk.
What is your favorite detail of the coelacanth fossil? Probably its skull, because it does really convey a sense of emotion, which is unusual in a fossil.
What’s the world auction record for a coelacanth fossil? Was it set with you? I don’t know. I very much hope it will be set by us at the next auction. We sold a few Indonesian ones three or four years ago, but they were smaller, and relatively more common specimens. This one deserves to go on to make a lot of money. It really is a tremendous specimen. I think this is the first German coelacanth ever to be offered at auction. I didn’t find reference to someone offering another.
You called the Indonesian specimens “more common”. What does “more common” mean when we’re talking about something as rare as a coelacanth fossil? Common as in I’ve seen four or five. We’re still talking about something very rare. This coelacanth fossil is the only one of this sort I’ve had the pleasure of handling.
Why will this coelacanth fossil stick in your memory? Fossils, because of their nature, are pretty neutral in appearance. But this one does appear to convey a sort of emotion.
Rupert van der Werff appeared previously on The Hot Bid speaking about a near-complete Dodo skeleton that set a world auction record.
Image is courtesy of Summers Place Auctions.
Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.