Ron Rennick Sr., Harvard-educated art collector and auctioneer, has fossil fever.
He caught the bug from Vero amateur fossil hunter James Kennedy, finder of the now-legendary fossilized elephant bone, etched with a striding mastodon or mammoth, believed to date from the Ice Age as the oldest work of art in the hemisphere.
While Vero real estate auctions used to consume his weekends, Rennick recently was found on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon not standing in front of a room filled with prospective homebuyers, but parking his Jeep where Oslo Road dead ends into the Indian River.
Grabbing a hoe out of the back of the Jeep, he ventured down to a nearly impenetrable stand of mangroves. There, as water filled his sneakers and muck sucked at the soles, he slogged along, poking at clots and rocks and shells, hoping for some ancient bit of bone to leap from the murk of millennia into the brilliant winter sunlight of modernity.
Where ditches drain into canals, and canals into the Indian River, Rennick the realtor sees not waterfront property, but thirsty ancient elephants which unlike some other species, needed a long daily drink, lumbering along paths to watering holes, where early man lay in wait.
What has come over Rennick, who originally was supposed to be auctioning the epic bone this spring, but who now is urging Kennedy to further postpone the sale?
Rennick seems to have become consumed with the idea that Kennedy’s find – combined with the century-old discovery of Vero Man, the human remains found alongside the bones of Ice Age plants and animals, and now the renewed subject of intensive local fundraising – strongly suggests our community was the shared destination of man and beast more than 10,000 years ago.
“It’s a fascinating journey we’re on,” says Rennick. “We’re learning more and more all the time.“ Last fall, Rennick was talking as if a sale of Kennedy’s bone was imminent. A world-wide auction was supposed to have taken place in February. Today his plan appears in flux.
In the last two weeks, top anthropologists and even a renowned art historian have descended on Vero Beach, with the bone given near-iconic status in its own little glass shrine in the Vero Beach Museum of Art. One lecturer after another has stepped up to tout not only its apparent validity but even its artistic merit.
Beyond his own fee or commission, which Rennick has not made public, Rennick wants his client, Kennedy, to make the most he can for his tenacity and keen eye.
But he has also become convinced that the world deserves to see Kennedy’s discovery. Rennick is trying to finagle a way for Kennedy to still pay his bills, and at the same time, keep the bone and allow it to be studied and displayed.
“James needs an income strategy. If we could somehow find a way for him to make some money, he would probably not sell it right away,” says Rennick. “He thought it would be great if he could be hired on as an archaeological assistant somewhere and travel the world doing this. There’s also some income to be had in marketing the image itself – hats, t-shirts. That’s the sort of thing we’re working on.”
Sometime in the coming week, Rennick, Kennedy and Kennedy’s longtime advisor and fellow fossil hunter Gene Roddenberry, a local attorney, will meet to discuss their next move.
Meanwhile, Kennedy is fielding renewed calls from the nation’s top natural history museums, including the Smithsonian Institution.
“He’s got a tough decision,” says Rennick. “I’m not pushing to sell it now. I think he could get more if he waited. But he needs to be able to take care of his family.”
Last week, more than a thousand people showed up at the Emerson Center to hear four esteemed scientists make the case for careful excavation of the site known as Vero Man.
The week before, nearly 4,500 people came to see the bone on display for the first – and possibly only – time in the Vero Beach Museum of Art.
It is in part due to this groundswell of interest that Rennick has changed his mind, and wants to postpone the auction. Indeed, last month he and his wife flew to Las Vegas to check out the market for a fossil auction that included a T-rex – it didn’t sell.
But the delay may also be owing to his own intense interest in what may lie underneath Vero’s real estate.
Rennick grew up on a farm in Licking, Missouri. He got his first taste of anthropology plowing the fields one day, when he glanced down at the dirt and saw a smooth stone the size of his hand. Today the Osage Indian relic sits on a shelf in his study, along with dozens of other artifacts in his collection.
In 1973, after finishing at Harvard and earning an MBA, Rennick moved to Vero Beach – his then-wife had family here. Rennick was 24. He invested in an apartment building downtown, eventually adding a few fixer-upper old houses and a duplex until he owned 100 rental units.
In 1979, he bought an old laundromat on Old Dixie Highway downtown, and turned it into an antiques store and real estate office. The next year, he got his license as an auctioneer, one of first Realtors to do so on the Treasure Coast.
Ten years later, he moved his shop and office to a space on Royal Palm Pointe, and bought the building five years later, selling off part to investors a few years after that. At the time he and his family were living in Central Beach.
Five years ago, he moved into the upstairs apartment, renovating it into an elegant sun-filled space with a long terrace overlooking boat slips below, and beyond, a stunning view of the river.
It was on a real estate expedition that Rennick first learned of Vero’s archaeological significance in – of all places, Belize. He had gone there in the early 1970s to look for land to buy.
“I remember my dad talking about land in Missouri costing fifty cents an acre in the depression. I heard land was four dollars an acre in Belize, so I went to check it out.”
There, he met two amateur archaeologists who, on hearing where he was from, told him about Vero Man, the human remains discovered in 1915 alongside the bones of Ice Age plants and animals. Up until that point, almost no one believed that man and beast coexisted during that era.
James Kennedy’s find, at least according to every scientist who has examined it thus far, finally lays the Vero Man controversy to rest. People have been enjoying Vero’s real estate for at least a decamillenium.
Kennedy came to Rennick soon after he discovered the etching. The two had known each other for ten years or so, Kennedy stopping by Rennick’s shop from time to time to sell him a fossil; because of epilepsy, the otherwise robust and highly energetic Kennedy cannot work a traditional job. He also tends to health issues of both his mother and his longtime girlfriend.
In the heady days following the discovery of the etching, the cash-strapped Kennedy saw his life turn around overnight. He turned down a cash offer of over $100,000 from the University of Florida. With national museums including the Smithsonian asking to display the specimen, Kennedy became increasingly protective, hiding the bone in a vault in a secret location.
With Roddenberry’s guidance, he approached national auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s but they demanded additional testing that would have required leaving the bone at various labs.
An ever-anxious Kennedy decided to stick with those who made him comfortable: Roddenberry for advice, and the hometown auctioneer, Ron Rennick. Rennick and Kennedy entered into an agreement late last summer to auction off the bone, Rennick promising an ambitious marketing campaign to get the word out worldwide.
Meanwhile, scientists who had taken the cause of the fossil to heart all but panicked at the thought of it potentially disappearing into the hands of a private collector who could hoard it or resell it or turn it into a belt buckle.
But under the glare of all the attention, Kennedy seems to have risen to the occasion. At the lecture in the Vero Beach Museum of Art, he took the podium to answer a potentially awkward question – where exactly had he found the artifact? He answered the crowd of 500 for a full five minutes, articulate and informed, and as impassioned as ever. One witness described his composure that like of “a Microsoft executive.”
Kennedy seems happy to have his Ice Age artist share the spotlight with that other celebrity of yesteryear, Vero Man. The site of that discovery nearly 100 years ago, a canal just north of the County Administration building, presumably still holds valuable Ice Age fossils. Working through the Indian River County Historical Society, state university scientists are desperately hoping $500,000 can be raised to do a thorough excavation of the area.