The world’s prettiest fossil

May 11, 2014 • 9:37 am

And it’s now missing, thanks to thieves who stole it from a private collection. Reader Ant called it to my attention from a post on ZME Science‘s “Fossil Friday”:

It’s the fossil of a giant ammonite, an ancient and prolific group of mollusks that has gone extinct without leaving descendants.

I have one (not opalized!) about a foot wide, polished and encased in its stone matrix, but this one is far better. For it’s become opalized: the mineral matrix that replaced the animal was a form of hydrated silica—the type that makes what is in my view the world’s most beautiful gem, the opal.

And what better combination than to have a fossil in opal! You can buy smaller ones on Etsy, but not like this one, said to be worth half a million dollars (or was worth, since it’s now missing):


As the website says, stuff like this is best put in a museum where it’s less liable to be stolen, and can be enjoyed by everyone. Still, I wouldn’t mind having a small version!


You can see more opalized ammonites here.


25 thoughts on “The world’s prettiest fossil

  1. I have never seen anything like this before love the glow of the gem and where might I find a small one I know my wife would love to have one.

  2. Ammonites are lovely plain, but opalized, they are even better. I’m not normally a fan of opals except when combined with ammonites.

      1. Stump Cross, in North Yorkshire?
        My caving club run regular trips there – both for fun and for digging – but I’ve never felt the need to spend 6 hours driving each way to get to the club hut, then another hour or so to get all that way east. With half the club living in and around Skipton, it’s a bit different for them.

  3. stuff like this is best put in a museum where it’s less liable to be stolen

    I’m not so certain about that. I have no hard numbers on this, buy I suspect that private collectors are on the average obscenely rich and more likely to store their collection behind high electrified fences, Dobermanns and safety glass than museums, who are always short of dosh.

    My suspicion is fed by such incidents as the infamous 1994 The Scream theft from the Norwegian National Gallery, no less.

    1. I don’t have any experience with nature museums, but I have experience with art museums, artists and art collectors at every level from middle level income to obnoxiously wealthy. In that world there is no doubt in my mind. On average important art is much better off in a museum. The majority of collectors do not treat art properly at any stage, from storage, handling to displaying.

      Just one for instance. I once installed a piece for a wealthy private collector who had just paid £2.5 million (about $4 million US) at auction for it. The piece had last been framed in the 60’s and was in disrepair. The collector was impatient to display the piece and had me disassemble and repair it right there on a table in their living room. I am glad it was me that happened to be doing it, because I have not come across many people that I would have wanted doing that if it belonged to me. Next, the collector decided that the old plexiglas glazing needed to be removed. New glazing would have been an improvement, but due to the nature of the piece it definitely should not have been left unglazed. And removing the glazing entailed taking it apart and reassembling it yet again. Don’t even get me started on storage issues I have come across, even with very major collectors.

      And regardless of budgets I have never seen security at a private collection that matches the typical art museum, at least in the US. I am sure there are exceptions on both sides, but on average museum security is much better.

      I have zero doubt that much more damage is done to important art by private collectors than at museums, even including theft from museums.

    2. buy I suspect that private collectors are on the average obscenely rich

      Certainly not the case for natural history collections. Without making any comment on my collection (sitting in a box in my garage, some on shelves in the house, and I spent 6 hours yesterday searching for fish fossils at the world-famous Achnaharras Quarry, the outcomes of which are migrating from my rucksack on the living room floor to the utility room for cleaning and sorting. [Nothing great, but I plan a return visit with better-chosen tools and an edge to my chisels.]), I can think of
      a national-grade collection of birds eggs collected from the 1890s to 1940s which spent from about 1970 to 2008 unattended in an attic above the meeting rooms of a once-week meeting natural history society (it’s now at the Natural History Museum’s collection in Tring ; that was a trial and a half, because it wasn’t found until after the “grandfather” exemption for antique egg collections had expired, and possession of un-licenced collections became an offence of strict liability. So getting it “re-grandfathered” and into a curated collection was a convoluted process.)
      One wonders where the Revd. Henslow’s herbarium spent 4 years being re-mounted and curated? Well, “obscenely rich” doesn’t fit the society rooms (different society) and private houses where that work was done. Oh, you haven’t heard of Henslow? Perhaps you’ve heard of one of his students, one Charles Darwin? There’s a particular frisson handling material that was almost certainly handled by those hands.
      I was reminiscing a couple of nights ago with one of my former lecturers about a specimen that I donated to the Department’s collection. That never had more than the most trivial of security – if the last person to get the key off the hook had remembered to lock the cabinets after examining what they were interested in, then the cleaners proved that the glass in it was normal window glass by putting the handle of a mop through one. The locks were easy to pick too.
      I suspect that you’re thinking of art collections. ‘[SHRUG]‘ on that ; why on earth you’d be getting art from someone you don’t know (as payment of beer debts), I never did understand. Without that personal contact, what’s the point of daubs on paper/ canvas/ stone?

  4. In the gem trade, these iridescent opalized ammonites are called “ammolite”. Korite, a company that specializes in this material (and perhaps coined the trade name) has a quarry video on their website:

    Korite exhibits at the Tucson Gem and Mineral shows every year and typically has several whole fossils as well as shell fragments and jewelry. The fossil in the photo is a nice big flashy one but it’s certainly not unique. When such a thing is stolen, it is always sad and leaves a feeling of violation and vulnerability. But at least this one can be replaced with something similar.

    With the increased interest in mineral collecting among the “one percent” in the last few years, prices have skyrocketed (fossils haven’t gone up as much, but pretty ones will undoubtedly piggyback on the mineral prices). From what I’ve seen at the shows, high-end dealers and buyers don’t yet understand the implications of the “bubble” they’ve created: more thefts and shady deals, more exploitation, and possibly the involvement of organized crime. (Ammolite is not a “high end” material but it could get there.)

  5. Ebay seems to have a modest and affordable selection of opalized ammonites available. It hard to judge the quality on some of them though.

  6. Opal, like tortoiseshell, amber and baleen, would be in much higher demand if we didn’t have plastics. Most examples of ‘gem’ opal look fake and tacky to me, but the reds and greens can be quite spectacular. Fortunately most opalised vertebrate fossils aren’t considered gem quality, but plenty of rare tetrapod remains from Australia’s Cretaceous still get chopped up for trinkets.
    Couldn’t help noticing that the linked story was missing all the vital information: age, locality and species of the ammonite. Without that, who cares what it’s supposed to be worth?

    1. Most examples of ‘gem’ opal look fake and tacky to me, but the reds and greens can be quite spectacular.

      I know what you mean. Getting opal with a real “fire” to it is hard. And because it’s genuinely difficult to photograph (well, I never succeeded in capturing it), then sellers have a get-out clause for when the reality isn’t as good as the photo and description imply. I gave up trying to get it online and stuck to the shops after a few tries.

      Couldn’t help noticing that the linked story was missing all the vital information

      Yeah, so apart from the pretties, it’s now useless.
      Don’t get me wrong – I like “pretties” too. But don’t confuse “pretty” with anything important.

  7. It’s very pretty. But it’s intellectually dead – no provenance (as described ; there may have been, but it wasn’t reported).
    I see that the blogger who put together this ZMEscience site asserts that he was trained as a geophysicist. So he knows the absolutely irreducible importance of the metadata that goes with the data. So there’s no excuse there – he knows better.

    Personally, I feel that such fossils should be kept in museums, not in personal collections – especially not thieves’.

    At a half-megabuck estimated value, I’d make a guess that the item was stolen to order. So it’s in the very-private part of some other private collection. Would cost … a few thousand to ten thousand bucks at a guess. A night’s work for two people plus a (local) driver. To ensure that the right piece was stolen, you’d need a photo of the piece. so the thief’s sponsor was likely to have visited to view the specimen in the not too distant past.

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