No scramble for dinosaur eggs

Collect to invest: They may be old but they're not rare, says John Windsor
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The Independent Online
Dinosaur eggs for Easter: pounds 225-pounds 400 each. A couple of dozen are being offered for sale by Chris Martin, the London antiquities and natural history dealer. They come embedded in claret-coloured silk in charmingly naff gift boxes that would look out of place in their native Henan province, North West China - either now or 75-85 million years ago.

The market for fossilised dinosaur eggs has boomed and busted since they began being smuggled out of China via Hong Kong in their hundreds five years ago. Whether you buy now, at the bottom of the market, depends on whether you think the Chinese will increase their rarity by putting a stop to smuggling. The latest buzz, however, is that there are 10,000 dinosaur eggs waiting to be illegally shipped to the United States and Australia before Hong Kong is handed back to the Chinese on 30 June.

Peak prices coincided with Jurassic Park fever: pounds 1,600 was paid at Bonhams in 1994 for the egg of a sauropod (plant-eating) dinosaur by Oliver Hoare, art dealer and confidant of Princess Diana. In the same auction, a nest of 10 sauropod eggs, embedded in heavy clay, fetched pounds 46,200.

Fresh out of Hong Kong, eggs of the therizinosaur, a two-legged theropod (meat- eater) known as the scythe lizard because of its menacing two-foot claws, change hands for $300, according to Terry Manning, the Leicester fossil dealer and researcher.

He had just returned from last week's big 10-day fair of fossil, mineral and gem dealers in Tucson, Arizona, where Chinese dealers from Hong Kong had whispered the latest on smuggling.

Dinosaur eggs, not found in the UK, are part of native antiquity in the US, so that is where the market is. Mr Manning had seen fine quality therizinosaur eggs offered by dealers at the fair for $900 and fine quality sauropod eggs for $1,000. Run-of-the-mill specimens were changing hands for $150- $800 - a higher price than a year or 18 months ago, when, after a rush of consignments from Hong Kong, eggs in average condition were at a rock- bottom $50-$100.

He scotched rumours that Chinese had been executed and imprisoned by the authorities for smuggling dinosaur eggs. They had in fact been executed and imprisoned by the army - "the biggest smuggler, a kind of mafia" - for refusing to co-operate with its illegal egg smuggling. Mr Manning's ambition is to do a Jurassic - to use a computer to reconstruct dinosaur DNA from biological remains found in their unhatched eggs, then clone a living dinosaur by inserting the DNA into a bird embryo. He admits that the computer power needed is the equivalent of the total information on the Internet (where, incidentally, dinosaur eggs are for sale at $800- $1,200).

But the recent cloning of an adult animal - a sheep - has taken his project a micron or two out of the realms of science fiction.

In the past four years he has bought 1,600 fossilised therizinosaur eggs, ranging in price from $800 each for the first 250 to $48 each for 50 inferior specimens from Japan. Out of the total, he has found only 15 that contain biological remains - bones and tiny teeth, proving, incidentally, that the embryo dinosaurs had cut a third set of teeth by the time they were ready to break out of the egg.

Each egg with a "commercially viable" embryo, he calculates, has cost him $72,000. In an attempt to recoup costs, he offered two of them at Phillips New York in December, each with a reserve of $125,000. They failed to sell. But a well-preserved therizinosaur egg of his, without embryo, fetched $3,737 in the same sale. Phillips's David Hirskowitz will sell only top-condition eggs (up to 95 per cent intact). He can get $4,000 for a good sauropod egg that a dealer could get only $800 for - proving that, in the US, some private buyers still think dinosaur eggs are rare.

Ironically, it is the expensive eggs with real embryo inside that are the least decorative. They are often found crushed. The "inflated" ones that still look like eggs - such as Mr Martin's Easter eggs - are the ones that have hatched. Minerals that drifted through the hole left by the hatching dinosaur preserve their shape.

Mr Martin's eggs have been identified as therizinosaur by the Natural History Museum. But some measure 8in by 5in, compared with the usual 3in by 2in for therizinosaurs and some experts, such as Mr Manning, reckon they are more likely sauropod. They are 65 per cent intact, the remainder of what was once shell having been replaced by hard red Chinese clay.

Ironically, the fact that there is virtually no market for dinosaur eggs in this country makes them relatively hard to find. Bonhams no longer offers them. In fact, Bonhams auctioneer Philip Keith, still famous for his coup in getting a peak pounds 46,200 for a clutch of 10, is heartily sick of the things. He values average-condition eggs in this country at pounds 100- pounds 300.

He says: "I could name 150 collectors and dealers in the US, the Far East and Europe who want to sell. Not a week goes by without my being offered some. I tell vendors that they are not rare and that nobody wants them, but they don't believe me. At the end of the day, they're just eggs, aren't they. I think they're boring."

Chris Martin: 85 The Vale, Southgate, London N14 6AT (0181-882 1509).

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