Legal sale of saber-tooth fossil decried

Paleontologists lament auction of tar pits skull

May 02, 2004|By Bob Pool | Bob Pool,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - He makes no bones about it: This tiger's legit, not illicit.

That's the way David Herskowitz defends the saber-toothed tiger fossil, found in the La Brea Tar Pits area, that he is selling today for the owner.

It's true, of course, that private collectors have been banned from the tar pits for more than half a century. It's also true that the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which maintains the prehistoric fossil collection at the tar pits, has been troubled in the past by thefts.

But the skull of a snarling Smilodon fatalis that Herskowitz intends to auction for a collector is that of a genuine victim of tar entrapment 16,000 years ago, he insists. And it was obtained legally from an excavation just outside the county tar pit boundaries, Herskowitz says.

The planned sale is a black moment for professional paleontologists who have spent their careers collecting and cataloging La Brea Tar Pits artifacts.

"I find the sale of prehistoric fossils repugnant myself," said Christopher Shaw, collections manager at the tar pits' George C. Page Museum. "To me these things are tools for research, not pieces of art. They're one-of-a-kind items that should be for everybody, not just rich collectors."

The cat's head is well preserved: Its dagger-like teeth extend 6 3/4 inches from the roof of its mouth.

Herskowitz expects it to fetch as much as $200,000 during a sale he is staging at I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers in Beverly Hills.

"This is the first time such a specimen has ever been made available to the general public," he said. "It's illegal to collect at the La Brea Tar Pits. The museum there doesn't even like to trade specimens with other museums."

Herskowitz said the saber-toothed tiger skull is one of two that were unearthed 40 years ago at a residential construction site a short distance from the tar pits park area. Workers on a kitchen remodeling project discovered that they were atop a hidden asphalt deposit, he said.

"They found a lot of fossils when they broke ground. A neighbor identified the pieces of skulls as being from saber-toothed tigers. In 1970, the homeowner sold the two skulls to a private collector."

Herskowitz declined to identify the collector except to say that he was a local businessman who was keeping the second skull fossil. He said the collector showed the skulls to Natural History Museum officials in the late 1970s and received a letter stating that the fossils were not illegally obtained.

"Before we did anything, we checked it out to make sure it's kosher," auctioneer Izzy Chait said. "With natural history, you have everybody looking over your shoulder."

At the Page Museum, fossil curators said they intended to do some more looking before today's planned auction.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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