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Epic fossil carving to be auctioned in Vero
BY SANDRA RAWLS - STAFF WRITER (Week of September 3, 2009)

Spurning a $120,000 cash offer from the University of Florida, and pleas and invitations from the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago, an amateur fossil hunter has decided to sell at public auction an etched 13,000-year-old fossil bone he found here in Vero Beach.

Discovery of the relic, which scientists say is the oldest authenticated artwork in the Americas, was first reported in a copyrighted story in the June 4, 2009 issue of Vero Beach 32963.

Now, James Kennedy, who discovered the etching of an ancient elephant on a footlong fossil bone he had found several years ago, has signed a deal with longtime Vero real estate auctioneer and antiques dealer Ron Rennick Sr., who has paid him $10,000 for the right to offer the piece at absolute auction.

Kennedy says he has heard estimates of the bone’s value ranging from $100,000 to well over $1 million.

Rennick, a Harvard-educated art collector, is working with the Vero Beach Museum of Art to hold an international auction and reception there in February. He says he intends to spend $40,000 on marketing to attract bidders to the event.

The news of a public auction dismayed renowned Gainesville archaeologist Barbara Purdy, a retired professor at the University of Florida and a champion of the bone’s extraordinary significance since she first examined it this spring.

“Frankly, I’m sickened,” she said, saying she fears the bone could end up in the hands of a private collector who might keep it out of reach of archaeologists. So far, not even a cast has been made of the scientifically invaluable object.

In June, after hearing the opinions of a panel of scholars affirming the etching’s authenticity, Purdy declared the bone “the oldest, most spectacular and rare work of art in the Americas.”

The best outcome, in the view of many, is that a consortium of people might join forces to preserve the fossil for science and the public, perhaps alumni of the University of Florida who would buy the piece and donate it to the university for display in the Florida Museum of Natural History there.

Others have suggested the piece, as a work of art, belongs in the collection of the Vero Beach Museum of Art, which in turn could loan it to larger museums.

According to Dr. Debra Krumm, former curator at Fort Pierce’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, an auction could become “a disaster for science” if the bone ends up in a private collection and is kept from researchers – and away from public view – forever.

Anxiety over traveling with the bone to such far-flung places as Washington and New York, and keen concern that the bone might be lost, stolen, or swindled away, drove Kennedy’s decision to sell the fossil through a local source.

Kennedy has known Rennick throughout his 25 years of local fossil hunting, frequently taking pieces to Rennick’s Royal Palm Pointe antiques store to sell. Rennick is a pioneer in auctioning real estate — he began in 1980 – but he has never auctioned anything like this before.

“This kind of auction is new to me,” says Rennick, who since May has doggedly pursued Kennedy for the right to auction the fossil. “It is all still a matter of targeting the market and advertising.”

Rennick plans to publicize the piece in art and archaeological magazines internationally and on line. “I think we’ll have a lot of interest in this item,” says Rennick. “I hope to get some of the biggest collectors in the world interested and bidding against each other.”

On the other hand, Rennick says, the fossil could be bought locally. “It may stay right here in Florida.”

Like the UF scientists who examined the bone, Rennick also wants to see a cast made and is determined to see if he can find the proper technology. With Rennick’s guidance, Kennedy now seems more inclined to agree to the arrangements for such an effort.

That would come as a great relief to UF’s Purdy. “I hope they can at least get a good cast made. Otherwise, the original might be lost forever from the scientific world,” says Purdy.

“There was another similar thing years ago from Valsequilla, Mexico. That specimen may have been authentic, but it got squirreled away in private hands, and no one knows where it is now.

“I don’t know why Kennedy couldn’t just take the money offered by the university this summer,” she says, referring to an offer of $120,000 dollars made by Gainesville’s Florida Museum of Natural History in June.

Krumm, the former Harbor Branch curator, agrees with Purdy about the risks of auctioning artifacts valuable to science.

Speaking from her home in Colorado, she told Vero Beach 32963: “When you have an auction, an amazing and important find like this carving can easily end up far away in, say, Japan or somewhere else in private hands. It can be a disaster for science and for the public who want to see it. This is an amazing discovery from Florida and it would be wonderful if it could stay there.”

The giant Tyrannosaurus, Sue, when auctioned off, was still in boxes and imbedded n rock. It was bought by a consortium that included Walt Disney World Resort and McDonald Corporation. The group came together in order to buy the massive fossil for the Field Museum of Chicago. They outbid other organizations and even private families so the enormous animal could be enjoyed by the public.

At his modest home in south Vero, James Kennedy pushed his chair back from a worn work table where he examines his many finds, and smiled broadly. Inhaling the smoke from a cigarette, he motioned to a pile of documents sitting on one end of the table.

“I think my arrangement with Ron Rennick was just meant to be,” he says. “I feel really good about it, really good,” he says.

The fossil mammal bone bears the carving of an extinct elephant. The find, unlike anything he had discovered in 25 years of amateur fossil hunting, has created a sensation in the United States and elsewhere, and brought him attention he never dreamed of.

Along with dates, Rennick and museum officials say they still need to work out how bidding will be done without phone banks, which the museum is not prepared to provide.

Furthermore, statements of authenticity from the specialists who have examined the carving at the University of Florida must be arranged to satisfy the requirements of the Museum of Art, along with acquiring insurance and arranging security.

“The value of the object is not known, so we cannot underwrite it,” says the Museum of Art’s director, Dr. Lucinda Gedeon, who adds that the museum does not normally get involved in commercial ventures.

“However, this carving is from here in Vero Beach and we would like a chance to display it so that citizens and certainly school children from our county can have a chance to see it.”

An Aug. 20 meeting of Kennedy, Rennick and local attorney and fossil enthusiast Gene Roddenberry, who has advised Kennedy since the etching was first discovered, included a tour of Rennick’s personal collection of Mayan and Egyptian art. The deal was struck over a lunch at the Lobster Shanty.

According to scientists, the etched bone is at least 13,000 years old. The carving was apparently made by an ancient resident of Indian River County sometime not long after the animal the bone came from was killed. The small, clear image of a long-extinct Florida elephant, seemingly striding forward with a drooping eye, distinctive tusks, and dangling trunk, was created using a bone or tooth implement.

The beguiling carving, in an awkward spot on the bone’s surface, conjures up a lost world from Florida’s past. The purpose of the drawing, deemed “a high level of art” by the University of Florida, can only be guessed at.

Kennedy was startled when he discovered the carving last spring, etched on the bone dug from a watery strip of private land where other fossils had been found in the past. He began an odyssey of trips back and forth to Gainesville to bring the carved fossil to experts at the University of Florida.

Meetings with anthropologists, paleontologists, archeologists, material scientists, and a host of others confirmed the authenticity of the carving and its antiquity. A process called Rare Earth Element analysis, a new technique that looks at the unique way rare elements accumulate slowly in bones, confirmed the Pleistocene bone’s Florida origin.

The experts also revealed the find is unique as a human artifact. Paleolithic human art depicting extinct animals is well-known from Europe and Asia, and long sought unsuccessfully from North America.

The carving from Vero Beach is the first such art authenticated. It confirms the co-mingling here of ancient mammals and human beings, and that these people made depictions of the animals they lived with and hunted.

Days after Vero Beach 32963 broke the story, Kennedy was inundated with requests from media outlets across the country and around the world. News cameras from local TV stations and calls from national news and research outlets created a whirlwind of activity around his quiet neighborhood. A variety of institutions sought casts of the bone or wanted to take a look at the real thing.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington offered to bring the bone and its owner to its Natural History Museum to have a cast made there. The Field Museum of Chicago requested a cast or the original be part of next spring’s planned exhibit on the Paleolithic Age. The American Museum of Natural History in New York expressed interest in a cast and further examination of the bone and carving.

Experts in Paleolithic art worldwide began to inquire about the carving. The well-known French magazine Sciences et Avenir included the carving in the August issue in a story about extinct elephants and existing art.

The bone and its elephant carving seemed to bewitch James Kennedy in a manner familiar to those who suddenly find themselves with valuable treasure. What was the one-of-a-kind object worth in monetary terms? Opinions varied, but perhaps a great deal, even millions of dollars.

He realized such a small object could be stolen, and started keeping it in a vault. He began to fear sending it anywhere out of his sight, and located a private guard who could be present if he showed the bone to anyone.

He sought to have a cast made locally, but his efforts to strike a deal with a nearby business or institution with laser light-based cast-making equipment has thus far been unsuccessful.

With assorted medical problems and a modest lifestyle, he resolved to sell the bone. “I’d be a fool not to,” he says emphatically. “I’d like to see it end up at a good museum and here in Florida, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing.”

Experts say the market for fossils is hot, as paleolithic pieces find their way into private collections across the world. There are ownership disputes, illegal collection, and a “wild West atmosphere” prevailing in parts of the United States, according to the April 2009 issue of Smithsonian magazine.

Actor Harrison Ford and director Steven Spielberg are just a few of the high-flying celebrities who own rare and expensive fossils, both with complete dinosaurs in their homes.

Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex auctioned by Sotheby’s New York auction house in dramatic fashion in 1997, fetched $8.36 million dollars and was a standing-room only affair.

Considerations of ownership in the case of Kennedy’s find were clarified this summer by the State Archaeologist Ryan Wheeler. Because the bone was found on private land where there was written permission to dig, the bone belongs to its finder.

Kennedy sought help from attorney Roddenberry in contacting Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in New York. The extreme rarity of the elephant carving meant assigning base value was a difficult task. The pair contacted David Redden, executive vice president of Sotheby’s who had been in charge of the auction of Sue, about setting up a New York auction of the bone from Vero Beach.

Here in Vero, however, a determined Ron Rennick had been following the fate of the Kennedy’s discovery. He had known Kennedy since he was a young man who sometimes brought in things he found or traded to the antique store on Royal Palm Pointe. Arrowheads or a stone implement found while digging for fossils would sometimes bring him in to talk to Rennick.

A collector of art and objects himself, Rennick approached the younger man as early as May about conducting a local absolute auction of the bone. With a lifetime of experience with auctions, he presented proposals to Kennedy throughout the summer.

Rennick’s patience paid off, as Kennedy’s wore thin.

“Those big auction houses up north require a ton of paper work, which we did,” says a frustrated Kennedy. “But they also wanted me to send the thing all around to other experts so I’d have to travel everywhere. I trust what all those people have said at the University of Florida, but Ron’s been working real hard to convince me to go with him, so that’s what I’m doing.”

In the end, the world-famous institutions and auction houses failed to give Kennedy the plan of action he wanted. “This is one redneck down South who got tired of waiting,” he quips.