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Fossil-Treasures-of-Florida-Newsletter, Issue #0014 -- How Do You Know These Fossils are Real?
July 21, 2012

Fossil Newsletter, Issue #0014 - How Do You Know These Fossils are Real?

July 21, 2012

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* How Do You Know These Fossils are Real?
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How Do You Know These Fossils are Real?

I hear this question a lot during fossil shows. On the face of it, it seems like a simple question, but I think the real question they’re asking is “I don’t know anything about fossils and I’m not sure you do either.” “Prove to me that you know and based on your answer I might buy a fossil from you.” Some people want to buy only from the person who found the fossil. This would verify the validity of the fossil. If you do enough shows or sell enough fossils, you know that you can’t find it all yourself, because you don’t have enough time to do so. If you have a working knowledge of fossils, you can tell what is real and what is not, for the most part. The easiest answer that I know is; “because I’ve worked with fossil materials for a couple of decades”.

So, what are some ways to tell if fossils are real? Shape? Color? Size? Weight? What?

It would help you to have some knowledge and get to know an area that you like. “I like fossil shark’s teeth”, “vertebrate fossils”, “invertebrates”, “insects in amber”, “fossil shells”, “fossil trilobites”, “fossil ammonites”, etc.” Pick an area you like, read up and study that specific area.

When I look at a fossil bone and want to be sure it’s real; I, in general, would look at its shape (does it look like a bone?). Does it have a color and weight to it that makes it appear that it has gone through a fossilization process? I would look closely at the detail on the bone. Does it have bone cells? Are these cells filled in or open? These questions would indicate if it is a real bone and/or fossil bone.

One test that is done with bones is to lightly tap the bone on your front teeth. If the sound is a “tink” (like bone china), you’re in the “pink”. If the sound it makes is a “thud”, you may have a “dud”. The sounds are based on mineralization levels and are a good rule of thumb.

A few things you do have to understand is what a replica or cast of a fossil looks like. I personally think replicas and casts are great to have, especially if you can’t afford or find the real thing (they make great study aids). It is not so great if someone is trying to sell a replica or cast as a real fossil. In the past, casts where made from plaster or Hydrocal. Today, most are made from resins and have various weights and colors added to the resin. Casts and replica’s can have good detail, but the surfaces usely do not look like real fossils upon closer inspection. They may contain air bubbles or blotched paints and pigments on the surface. Others are extremely good.

A lot of fossils come from poor countries where labor is cheap, but some great artisans exist there; perfecting there craft day in and day out for little financial reward. That is why someone would spend all day faking a $5 fossil.

I will tell you that Morocco has some of the greatest fossil deposits and commercially available fossils in the world. They have the Great Sahara Sea Deposits and cheap labor to extract and export. It, also, produces a lot of fake and altered fossils. This is especially true of Moroccan Trilobites.

Repairs on fossils are “Ok” in my book as long as they are identified to the buyer at the time of purchase. You can determine what you think the value might be. I will say that 15-20% repair is alright (although, not as good as perfect), but the price should continue to adjust downward as the repair percentages go up. If it is 70-80% or more in repair, that’s not a repair or much of a fossil; or even a cast/replica; it really just becomes a piece of artwork. Here again, you will have to decide if you want and how much you are willing to pay for artwork.

Location information is critical in determining if a fossil is real. No information? – not good, even if it is a real fossil. It would be extremely helpful to know and understand which fossils come out of which areas.

Another gray area is fossils that have been painted or color enhanced. An example is commercial fossil fish that are frequently color enhanced with paint to bring out the fish (almost an industry standard). Some fossils are enhanced by adding or setting them into or on to matrix; sometimes original matrix and a lot of the times, not. Some fake fossils are modern mammal bones soaked in dye, or coffee grounds, or walnut husks, etc., then sold as real fossils. If a fossil has been color enhanced, it needs to be disclosed as such at point of purchase. Of course, you can choose what you want and are willing to pay for.

Fossils that look too good to be true or in an unnatural state may be fake. An example of this would be if there were too many “perfect” fossils for sale at one table or several fossils “perfectly” arranged on one slab of matrix. Note: using a hand held optical piece or visor can show you some great detail on a fossil. Also, Blacklights or UV lights can help identify repairs and even complete fakes.

There are numerous ways to fake a fossil and those ways keep changing all the time. Some are easy to spot and others are not so easy. Over time, you may purchase a fossil that is not what you thought it was or not what you where told it was. You could try to only find your own fossils, but you still have to have some knowledge to find a real fossil. The simple answer is that fossil specific knowledge and dealing with good reputable fossil dealers will go along way in knowing if the fossils are real.

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