A fossilized saber-toothed cat skull that was found decades ago in debris from a construction site on Wilshire Boulevard is scheduled to be sold on Sept. 28 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas.
The fossil, which has a minimum bid of $690,000 and could sell for more than $1 million, is considered one of the best examples of a saber-toothed cat skull in existence. It has been in the private collection of Los Angeles resident Arnold Newman since the 1970s and has never before been offered for sale at auction.
While sales of such fossils are generally opposed by scientists and museum authorities who believe they should be in public collections, the pending sale has generated interest but not controversy with authorities at the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, which oversees the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum where similar fossils are housed. Newman possesses a letter from 1980 from a museum official who determined the fossilized skull, and another skull from a saber-toothed cat that he previously sold, were not from the museum’s collection and therefore not stolen or missing. The letter by William A. Akersten, then-curator for the Rancho La Brea Collection, which is part of the Natural History Museum collection, stated, “I have no reason to believe that these two specimens were not legally obtained.” However, in response to the fact that the specimens were privately held, Akersten also wrote that, “I consider the general practice of buying and selling fossils repugnant.”
Trina Roberts, associate vice president for collections for the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, confirmed this week that the fossilized skull available for sale on Sept. 28 was not illegally obtained and the sale is lawful. Heritage Auctions had recently provided information to the museum about the specimen when the auction was announced.
“As far as we know, it was collected on private land somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood but not at what we think of as the La Brea Tar Pits,” Roberts said. “We wish this skull was in a museum; it’s a very well-preserved specimen. The owner certainly has the right to sell it if they choose.”
Newman said the fossilized skull was found by a friend, Michael Hammer, in 1955 when Hammer was 12 years old. According to Newman, Hammer was a boy at the time excited by the prospect of finding fossils when construction was occurring for a bank near Wilshire and Hauser Boulevards. Debris headed for a garbage dump was piled up at the construction site, and workers allowed Hammer to take what he wanted. Contained in that debris were the two saber-toothed cat skulls, Newman said.
Hammer found the skulls about 20 years before he met Newman as the result of a chance encounter. Newman later purchased the two fossilized skulls from Hammer in 1973. Newman sold the other skull, which he said was not in nearly as good condition as the one currently offered at auction, to a buyer who remained anonymous during a previous auction 12 to 15 years ago. He declined to say how much he received for that specimen, or how much he originally paid Hammer for the fossils.
Newman said he previously produced an educational television show that aired on KTTV in the 1970s and 1980s called “The Elementary News” and used the fossilized saber-toothed cat skulls as props. The 78-year-old Newman said the best of the two specimens is a prized possession that he only recently decided to sell so he could leave a financial legacy for his children. A rainforest biologist by trade, Newman said he hopes whoever buys the fossil will allow it to be used for educational purposes and not hidden away in a private space.
“It’s only going to be purchased by a person with an affinity for these types of things,” Newman said. “These are very sought after, and this is the best of the best.”
Heritage Auctions spokesman Eric Bradley said the saber-toothed cat fossil is included in a lot that is already open for bidding. It will be sold during a live auction at 1:30 p.m. central time on Sept. 28 at the auction in Dallas. A $690,000 bid had already been made as of Monday, Bradley added.
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