SOLD! Albert Einstein’s 1935 Passport Photo Commands $17,500 at Bonhams

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Update: The 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo sold for $17,500.

 

What you see: A passport photograph of Albert Einstein, signed and dated May 30, 1935, along with a piece of paper signed and dated by Einstein and featuring a brief goodbye note in German from Einstein’s son-in-law, Dmitri Marianoff. Bonhams estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.

 

Who was Albert Einstein? He was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He came up with the theory of relativity, which upended the fields of theoretical physics and astronomy. He also composed the formula E = mc2 [energy equals mass times the speed of light, squared], which has come to symbolize science and, to some extent, genius itself. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work in theoretical physics. After Hitler and the Nazis took over Germany, Einstein, who was Jewish, settled in the United States, gaining citizenship in 1940. A 1939 letter he sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked the creation of the Manhattan Project, the scientific endeavor that led to nuclear weapons. He based himself in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died in 1955 at the age of 76.

 

The expert: Ian Ehling, director of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.

 

Has anything else Einstein-related come to auction that’s similar to this passport photo? Have you seen any other 1930s passports or immigration paperwork connected to Einstein? Not that I know of. I’ve only come across a Swiss passport of his dating back to 1923. This particular photo was always in the possession of the consigner. The way it was was in the 1930s, Einstein was already in the United States. He was working in Princeton, New Jersey, and he decided not to return to Germany. In order to apply for citizenship, you had to be outside the country. So he took his family on a trip to Bermuda and got the ball rolling there. He used a different image on his passport. After Bermuda, I think they came through Ellis Island in New York and turned in their paperwork.

 

How does the fact that the passport photo dates to the 1930s–when the Nazi regime was imposing anti-Semitic policies on its citizens, convincing Einstein to leave–add to its value? It’s a huge factor in its value. [The choice that the passport photo represents] is just an awesome moment to witness. It was a turning point–a man of the world applying for U.S. citizenship. It represents the very first step [toward that]. This is a very close witness to things that were on his mind at the time.

 

And he would have sat for the photo in Bermuda? Yes. You can’t tell, but he’s wearing a leather jacket in the photo. In the formal portrait on the paperwork, he’s wearing something else.

 

Wait, was Einstein wearing THE leather jacket in this photo? The one that Levi Strauss & Co won at Christie’s London in 2016 for $147,000? It’s a leather jacket, but we can’t see enough to say it’s THE leather jacket.

 

And this is fresh to market? Yes. It comes directly from the person who received it. She was a little girl [at the time], the granddaughter of the innkeeper [at the guest house where Einstein stayed in Bermuda]. She was 13 years old, and she was curious. She engaged Einstein in conversation. He signed and dated the photo and gave it to her, and she kept it all her life. She’s in her nineties now, and she’s decided to sell. I don’t think it was ever published or anything like that.

 

How did you arrive at an estimate for this? It’s a gut feeling. I feel the photo is incredibly important. It reflects on him becoming a U.S. citizen. The estimate reflects its historic significance.

 

How have you seen the market for Einstein material change over time? In the 1930s, he was already famous. The photo definitely had value back then. But the Einstein market has changed significantly. I can’t say Einstein items are rare. He would get lots of letters, and he spent a good deal of time every day answering them. The most significant ones are the manuscripts where he talks about scientific things, and certain items that he owned. For example, he was very interested in music and performing with friends; we sold his violin in March 2018 for $516,500. The passport photo is a more iconic thing. Einstein was at a turning point in his life, deciding to become a U.S. citizen. It’s signed and dated, and it shows him the way you expect him to look like. He didn’t get a haircut before the picture was taken.

 

Why is Einstein the most sought-after scientist at auction? He had the most brilliant mind in physics since Newton, and on top of that, he was not a nerdy scientist. He was incredibly approachable. He didn’t just follow scientific interests. He played the violin, he went sailing, he was someone who enjoyed life.

 

Why will this Einstein passport photograph stick in your memory? The personal connection. It shows him being open and approachable and talking to a 13-year-old girl in Bermuda. And it’s consigned directly by that person. It’s special. It’s two degrees of separation–the consigner, and then Einstein. That’s what makes it so beautiful and significant.

 

How to bid: The Einstein passport photograph is lot 76 in Bonhams‘s June 12, 2018 Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in New York.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

 

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BOOM! That Amazing Australian “Fireworks” Opal Commanded $162,500 at Bonhams

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Update: The Australian black-bodied “fireworks” opal sold for $162,500.

 

What you see: An exceptional black opal with a “fireworks” pattern, found at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia. Bonhams estimates it at $120,000 to $140,000.

 

 

The expert: Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of Bonhams’s natural history department in Los Angeles.

 

 

Where are opals found? They can come from different locations. They can be found at the sites of former volcanic activity, or where silica deposits itself in a sedimentary fashion. Australia is an example of the sedimentary form. The colors that the opals will have depend on the trace elements in the spot where they are found. The opals at Coober Pedy, Australia have a white body color. A thousand kilometers away from there, at Lightning Ridge, the opals have a rich, deep, black body color in which you find this play of fire. It’s a much more dramatic contrast.

 

 

Is Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia known for opals? Yes. The first major discovery was made in 1905. This particular opal was found 20 to 30 years ago. It’s never been up at auction before.

 

 

How did this opal become so wildly colorful? It’s a very random occurrence, actually, that determines whether opals have a pattern or not. What makes the color so vivid is really the beauty of nature and the way the spherules [tiny spheres] of silica manage to create a pattern.

 

 

Did the opal come out of the ground looking like this, or did a stone-cutter bring out its beauty? Its beauty would have to be revealed by the stone-cutter. Miners can agonize over keeping an opal in its rough state or cutting it away.  It’s an unknown thing until you actually open it up, and you need an expert polisher who will work with you to take away the layers until they reveal the best-looking stone. The cutter kept it as large as possible with a gem-quality pattern. Those are decisions you have to make when going through the gem-cutting process.

 

 

Do winning bidders tend to keep an opal as-is, or do they have it set in a custom piece of jewelry? It’s a little bit of both. I have male and female customers. Men like to invest in opals and see them as an asset class, as a segment of their portfolio. Women tend to buy smaller stones that they can mount into a ring or a pendant. They tend not to go for specimen-size opals. Guys will buy the superlatives, such as the world’s biggest black opal.

 

 

Why is the word phenomenon in quotes in the title of the auction? I’ve been doing auctions for 35 years. I set myself a challenge–how could I package it in a way that looks different and fresh, and try to educate people? By focusing on the vocabulary of gemology, and what’s behind it. When we go to gemological school, we focus on what are known as “phenomenal” gemstones. It’s a reference to optical phenomena. Opalescence is an optical phenomenon. Iridescence is an optical phenomenon. You can have a sapphire that’s transparent, and you can have a sapphire with inclusions that line up along a six-ray radial axis, so when you cut and polish it into a cabochon shape, you see a six-ray star. That’s an optical phenomenon called asterism. Rubies can have it, and even peridots and garnets can have it. I decided [for this auction] in addition to focusing on the world localities of opals, I’d make a theme of gems with optical phenomena.

 

 

Are there any aspects of the opal that the camera did not catch? I think we got a pretty darn good photo of it, but the beauty of opals–the color shifts with the shift in light conditions. They’re best seen in person. But the photographers at Bonhams are the best in the business.

 

 

The lot notes call this “one of the most memorable pattern opals to be offered at auction in the last decade.” What makes it so memorable? Over ten years of doing opal auctions, I’ve had a few pattern opals. Red is the rarest color. It’s the money color. The more red there is in an opal, the more money you’re going to get. With red, it starts at $1,200 to $1,500 a karat, and it can go up to $20,000 a karat. When you see really broad patches with red predominant, that’s a lot rarer. For me, this is one of the best I’ve seen.

 

 

How to bid: The exceptional black opal with a fireworks pattern is lot 3147 in The World of Gold, Opals, and Other “Phenomenal” Gems sale taking place May 15, 2018 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

 

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

 

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SOLD! The Canyon Diablo Meteorite Commanded $237,500 at Christie’s

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Update: The Canyon Diablo meteorite sold for $237,500.

What you see: A meteorite from the Canyon Diablo fall, which occurred about 50,000 years ago in what is now the American state of Arizona. Christie’s estimates the meteorite at $150,000 to $250,000.

What is a meteorite? “A meteorite has managed to make its way all the way down to the earth,” says James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history. “A meteor is what you see flashing across the sky. It has to be a certain size to avoid the destructive forces of entering the earth’s atmosphere.”

It’s described as a “matchless” meteorite. Why? “It’s unlike and better than any Canyon Diablo meteorite I’ve seen,” he says. “And the holes on it are astonishing. They really add to the sculptural aesthetic collectors look for. For every 200 Canyon Diablo meteorites I see, maybe five are pretty or aesthetic, and probably one has a hole. To have as many holes as this–I can’t think of a meteorite at that size with that many holes. It looks like a Barbara Hepworth or a Henry Moore sculpture. It’s a class above other meteorites from that event.”

Why does the meteorite look this way? “As the meteor falls to earth, the fricative forces in the atmosphere heat it up and will blow it up eventually. The fragments plow into the earth,” he says. “Then they undergo terrestrialization–they weather. If within a parent body there’s a natural weakness in the rock, it will slowly carve away and form a hole. For this particular fragment, tumbling toward the earth created the conditions that allowed it to form holes. ”

The meteorite is also described as having an “uncommon smooth metallic surface.” What does that mean? “Most Canyon Diablo meteorites you come across have a jagged surface,” he says. “This looks like the stereotyped ideal of how we want meteorites to look.”

What is the meteorite made of? “Iron and nickel, with several other trace metals,” he says.

The meteorite measures thirteen and a half inches by eight inches by seven and a quarter inches. Is that unusually large? “For something as pretty as that, yes,” he says. “You do get bigger than that. The most famous is the Willamette in New York.”

What does it feel like to hold it in your hands? “It weighs 70 pounds. It’s heavy. If you dropped it on your toes, you could cause real mischief,” he says. “But when you have one of these iron meteorites in your hand, you do have a moment when you step back and think about it. These objects are four and a half billion years old. In our day to day experience, we struggle to understand millions and billions. These objects are one-third as old as time itself. I find it an amazing philosophical puzzle to unravel. The meteorite has a presence that really drives the question home.”

How often do Canyon Diablo meteorites come up at auction? “We have about one every six months at Christie’s, but in ten years, I’ve never seen one that looked like this,” he says. “It’s one of the most extraordinarily beautiful meteorites we’ve had. It has a sculpture-like quality to it. Great art and great objects hold their own next to masterpieces. I’d love to have this with a Franz Kline on the wall and a Barbara Hepworth on the table. It would have a wonderful presence.”

Why else will the meteorite stick in your memory? “I’d go back to its sculpture-like quality. It just screams ‘Barbara Hepworth’ to me,” Hyslop says. “A lot of found objects have that aesthetic. And it looks like the stereotype of a meteorite. It’s perfect.”

How to bid: The Canyon Diablo meteorite is lot 41 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar, and Other Rare Meteorites, a Christie’s online sale taking place from February 7 to February 14, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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SOLD! A Pair of Mittens Belonging to Antarctic Explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard Fetches a Cool $10,435 at Bonhams–Well Above The High Estimate

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Update: The lambskin mittens belonging to Apsley Cherry-Garrard sold for £7,500, or about $10,435–well above their high estimate.

What you see: A pair of lambskin inner mittens with cotton drawstrings, which belonged to British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Bonhams estimates them at £1,500 to £2,000 ($2,000 to $2,700).

Who was Apsley Cherry-Garrard? He was the second-youngest member of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) to Antarctica. He and two fellow explorers embarked on a five-week journey to collect Emperor penguin eggs in the dark depths of winter. (It had to be winter, because that’s when the penguins lay their eggs.) Cherry-Garrard chattered his teeth to bits in the punishingly cold weather. He was lucky; unlike Scott or his companions on the penguin egg quest, he lived to tell the tale in the aptly-named 1922 adventure travel classic, The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry-Garrard died in 1959 at the age of 63.

So, Cherry-Garrard wore at least two sets of mittens in Antarctica, yes? “I’m not a mitten specialist, but as far as I can tell, these are inner mittens,” says Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams. “If you see the pictures, they [the explorers] are usually wearing rabbit or fox fur [on their hands]. I think these are the liners.”

And did these lambskin inner mittens represent the apex of cold weather gear circa 1910? “They were about as technically advanced as it got,” he says.

The Terra Nova explorers had to choose between mittens or gloves, and they went with mittens. How did that affect the expedition? “They knew mittens were warmer, but it must have been difficult to manipulate the sledges and do scientific experiments,” he says. “It added to the misery of a nightmarish environment. Cherry-Garrard made a very long sledge trek in Antarctic winter, which is our summer. The temperatures fell below – 77 Fahrenheit, or – 60 Celsius.”

How well did these mittens work for him? Cherry-Garrard didn’t comment on the performance of his lambskin mittens, but the Bonhams lot notes quote a passage from page 238 of The Worst Journey in the World: “My clothing had frozen hard as I stood… For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in. By now we had realized that we must reverse the usual sledging routine and do everything slowly, wearing when possible the fur mitts which fitted over our woollen mitts, and always stopping whatever we were doing, directly we felt that any part of us was getting frozen, until the circulation was restored.”

Cherry-Garrard and his two companions bore five Emperor penguin eggs back to the base camp wrapped in their mittens. Do we know if he used these mittens to carry any eggs? “I don’t know whether we can say it was exactly this pair,” he says. “But he did have this pair with him, and he gathered Emperor penguin eggs, and he wrapped them in his mittens to stop them from freezing. He managed to get three back to London.”

How do we know these are Cherry-Garrard’s mittens from the Terra Nova expedition? “They were originally consigned by members of his family at a previous auction,” he says. “They were acquired by the current owner from there.”

Are these the only Cherry-Garrard expedition-used artifacts that might have come in direct contact with the penguins? “It’s difficult to say for definite, but [the penguin backstory] gives a bit more color to it,” he says, adding that Bonhams sold a pair of woolen mittens worn by Terra Nova expedition member George Levick in 2014 for £625 ($846).

How desirable are Cherry-Garrard artifacts among polar collectors? Who, other than Scott, would be more sought-after than him? “Probably any of the people who died in the tent,” says Haley, referring to Captain Lawrence Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Doctor Edward Wilson, and Lieutenant Henry Bowers. “It’s kind of grisly, but if you died on the expedition, you became more mythological than those who didn’t. In 2012, we sold a 1912 letter that was found on Scott’s body for £163,250 ($221,228). You don’t get much better than that.”

One of the mittens has a few “rust marks.” What are rust marks? He says they’re literally marks caused by rust. The mitten must have rested against a rusty bit of metal at some point.

Have you tried the mittens on? How big are they? “I haven’t, actually, because they’re framed,” he says. “They’re quite large, almost 12 inches long. They had to cover the wrists as well.”

What else makes these mittens special? “There’s something a little light and amusing about mittens,” he says. “You think of a toddler with them dangling from ribbons on their sleeves. It’s the combination of the sweet idea of the mittens in your head with the grim reality of what Cherry-Garrard had to deal with.”

How to bid: The Cherry-Garrard mittens are lot 136 in the Travel & Exploration sale at Bonhams London on February 7, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

Purchase a copy of The Worst Journey in the World through the Strand Bookstore in New York City.

In 2012, the Natural History Museum, London, placed one of the Emperor penguin eggs retrieved by Cherry-Garrard on display and created a web page about its treasure.

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Is This Diamond Green With Envy? No, Natural Radiation. And It Could Fetch $3.3 Million At Phillips

Rare and Important Fancy Intense Green Diamond Small

What you see: A fancy intense green diamond that weighs 5.62 carats. Phillips estimates it at HK $22 million to $26 million, which is about $2.8 million to $3.3 million.

So, just how rare are green diamonds? “We know colored diamonds are quite rare compared to colorless diamonds, and green diamonds are particularly rare,” says Terry Chu, head of jewelry, Asia, senior director, at Phillips. “Blue diamonds are caused by the presence of boron in the diamond crystal structure. Green diamonds are not caused by any impurity. They’re caused by natural radiation–subtle energy that can change the diamond crystal to a green color if it penetrates it over a long span of time–millions of years. Very often, the radiation can only penetrate to the outer layer. Usually only the skin of the diamond crystal is green, and when the diamond cutter polishes it, the green will be gone.”

How rare is it to find a rough green diamond that reduces to a stone of more than five carats? “The finished product is 5.62 carats, so the original rock was maybe seven or eight carats,” she says, adding that in 15 years of experience in gem and jewelry auctions, this is the first green diamond of its kind that she has handled. “But I would not use five carats [as a benchmark]. I would say most green diamonds are below three carats. One other green diamond that was not even five and a half carats–it was 5.03 carats–made over $3 million per carat 18 months ago.” (It sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in May 2016.)

This stone is described as a “fancy intense” green diamond. What does that mean? “Fancy intense is a color grade given by the Gemological Institute of America, the most reputable laboratory in diamond grading,” she says. “When grading a colored diamond, it’s based on saturation, from faint to fancy vivid. Fancy intense is below fancy vivid, which is the most saturated. It’s one grade below fancy vivid.”

Why did the jeweler choose a cushion modified-cut for the green diamond? “It has a more balanced outline,” she says. “No matter which side or which angle you look at it [from], it’s a nice shape. It’s still a brilliant cut style, and brilliant cut styles make it more appealing. With diamonds in general, the round brilliant cut is most popular, and the most everlasting shape and cutting style.”

Why did you put the green diamond in a white gold ring? “When I saw this stone, I wanted to show the pure, real color,” she says. “White gold [allows] the best, most true presentation of the green color of the diamond.”

Is it comfortable to wear on your hand? “A diamond never looks too big on any woman,” she quips. “Don’t worry. One carat of diamond weighs about 0.2 grams. That means five carats equals one gram. It will never be too heavy or too big.”

This looks more like a mint green, or an ice green. Are there green diamonds that have more of an emerald color, or a spring green color? “It’s a pure green color. There’s no secondary color in the hue,” she says. “A yellow-green color is not pure green, and technically, an emerald green is a blue-green. It would not be a pure green. This diamond may look like a mint or an ice green, but those are not standardized technical terms.”

What is the green diamond like in person? “Throughout my career, every time I handle a rare stone, I always have a feeling of how amazing nature is,” Chu says. “When you explain what causes a green diamond, when you think about the whole process, you feel so small. A human being lives maybe 100 years. In a geological span, that is nothing. And the color–no mater how clever or technically advanced human beings are, we cannot duplicate the green color created in nature.”

How to bid: The rare and fancy intense green diamond and diamond ring is lot 607 in the Jewels and Jadeite sale at Phillips Hong Kong on November 27.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips.

Special shout-out to Aja Raden, author and green diamond fan extraordinaire.

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Heritage Auctions Has a Matched Set of Bull Mammoth Tusks That Could Fetch $250,000 (Fluffy Bunny and Carrot Not Included)

Pair of Woolly Mammoth Tusks. Mammuthus primigenius. Pleistocene. Alaska...

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.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

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