FAKE FOSSILS main section




One of the first and biggest problems with fraud in the commercial fossil market began with trilobites.  Fake and heavily fabricated trilobites are still with us today and one of the (if not THE) largest problem areas of FAKE FOSSILS.  The following dissertation best sums up what to look out for with fraud and forgery in trilobite fossils.  Some of the experiences and comments are dated but by and large, the majority of the article still holds true today.  As time passes, and the collector becomes more educated and knowledgeable, certainly new procedures for faking all fossils will attempt to trump our judgment and experience.  The commercial fossil market requires continual and active monitoring to learn of new techniques of the "artists".

With that said, it is important to note that the methods that are needed to locate trilobite fossils are the most destructive methods used - smashing and splitting rock.  In every case the fossil is broken because you have to break the rock to find it.  Since every fossil will have some damage, repair and possibly some restoration is almost unavoidable.  The problem is not inherently whether work is done to a trilobite but whether the dealer is disclosing the work performed or worse yet, lying about it.  There is no excuse though, for a completely fake trilobite.  The sale of such an item implied as genuine, by any fossil dealer, ought to bring his or her entire reputation into question.

Only the most experienced fossil dealers who possess necessary test and preparation equipment and who are EXTENSIVELY EXPERIENCED WITH ALL TECHNIQUES OF FOSSIL RESTORATION AND FABRICATION should be trusted to know the difference when it comes to fake fossils of ANY source or type!  Very, very few fossil dealers have any more knowledge in this than the very customers that rely on them!  Do NOT be afraid to ask your fossil dealer about his or her PERSONAL and immediate experience in fossil preparation, restoration and fabrication.  If they tell you they do not PERSONALLY possess MANY YEARS OF EXTENSIVE first-hand experience in artistic techniques and application in fossil fabrication and restoration, and that they are relying on THEIR sources, avoid these dealers at all costs!!!  These fossil dealers likely have several specimen in their inventory that they have no clue as to their true authenticity regardless of any guarantee or assurances that they will provide you.


TUTORIAL - How to identify fake trilobites

by Dipl. Geol. Jens Koppka, Heiko Sonntag & Horst Burkard, - copyright 2003

additional commentary and editing by

Introduction by

It is important to note that this article was written in 2003.  Much can change in a year not to mention several.  As the "mousetrap gets better, the mice just get smarter".  This article was not completely comprehensive (nor was it meant to be) when it was written and since that time, the techniques / skills of faking have GREATLY improved and prevalence of fakes has increased.  Because of the reduction in new discoveries and the steadily increasing prices of genuine, complete specimens of fine quality, the potential monetary gain is great when it comes to "improving" poor quality or incomplete specimens, as well as completely fabricating the fossil from nothing. 

An example of how times have changed.  In just three years since this article was written, entire specialty workshops have been set up in Morocco to fabricate specific genres of fossils (and artifacts).  Now, the suppliers of these fakes are like physicians - each one specializes in a type of trilobite or technique.  You have some that only deal in Cambrian fakes, some in Ordovician fakes, this guy makes complete specimens of partial ones, this guy supplies the fake spines, that guy is making complete fakes of free-standing spiny Devonian trilobites.  They even package the fakes in the same way, for instance.  You will find complete fakes of what seem like meticulously prepared spiny trilobites with all the spines exposed packaged in the same plastic containers that the real specimens come in.  It is ASTONISHING and this is just the trilobites.  For all other fossils and artifacts, the same holds true.  And note, this is NOT just in Morocco.......

Be vigilant in knowing what you collect and only deal with suppliers that are also fossil preparators who own and operate their own lab experienced all phases of fossil preparation and conservation.  The "deals" you find from questionable sources will be far negated by the junk pieces that will invariably, find their way into your collection from these same suppliers of "deals".  ANY DEALER THAT DOWNPLAYS THE PREVALENCE OF FAKES IN THE FOSSIL MARKET IS ONLY HELPING TO PERPETUATE THIS PLAGUE AND IS LIKELY PROFITING FROM THIS FRAUD.  ANY PALEONTOLOGIST WILL CONFIRM WHAT WE SAY HERE AND THAT FRAUD IS AN EVER-GROWING PROBLEM IN THE COMMERCIAL FOSSIL MARKET.

As trilobite collectors and preparators visiting many fossil shows and fairs we have had the chance to obtain some experience with fake trilobites.  The knowledge we have gained over so many years allows us to quickly identify false material while it may be very difficult for others who are not so familiar with how fake trilobites are made.  Unfortunately the trilobite market seems to be flooded with false stuff at the moment, the “quality” of which is getting better continuously, making it even harder to tell.  We therefore, thought it a good idea to make our knowledge available to others in a way easily understood.

We also have to point out that there is no overseeing authority of control, as far as trilobite (as we as ALL fossil) sales are concerned on the internet, in shops or at shows, and no action taken against dealers who knowingly sell false material (like exclusion from shows and/or legal action).  This unwelcome situation almost encourages certain dealers to take advantage and the honest dealers are the ones who have to pay for it.  Horst Burkard undertook to investigate many of the false trilobites coming from Morocco, using one of the most brutal methods available …. he took a saw!  The results of his little massacre were on display during the Hamburg Fossil Show in 2003 and we had a chance to talk to him and take photos. The following text was originally written in German by Jens Koppka, photos taken by Heiko Sonntag.  Translation by Michael Kipping and final editing by Paleo Direct, Inc..

Historical Aspects

Faking trilobites is not a new business.  Repairing, restoring, adding to or plain faking of fossils is almost as old as the fossil trade itself.  The problem being, as with most areas of collecting, that money can be made and sometimes has to be made due to lack of other options and wide-spread poverty.

The famous 19th century trilobitologist BARRANDE, employed what he called “rock men” to search the areas near Prague for trilobite specimens.  Particularly interesting finds resulted in good money and some of those “rock men” could not help but fail their employer and produce false trilobites in order to get more money for them.  With the beginning of the trilobite trade at the end of the 19th century, many of these faked specimens found their way even into the collections of great museums around Europe where they are on display even today as refreshing curiosities (Budik & Turek, 2003).

A favored way to fake trilobites was simply to assemble new specimens from parts, originating at times not only in different specimens but even in different genera, and thereby making the “trilobite” complete, resulting in higher prices when sold.  Some of these “rare species”, which had been sold to museums and educational institutions, look quite grotesque in our time.  There was, for example, a trilobite assembled from the cephalon of a Phacops, the pygidium being an Odontochile and the thorax consisting of merely 4 segments. (SNAJDR, 1992).  However, at those times, the faked trilobites at least consisted of real parts.  They were created in a “make-one-out-of-two”-manner but the parts were real.  Fakes of this nature are created unto this very day, but the availability of resins made it possible to fake entire trilobites by simply casting them.

Following sensational finds of large and bizarre trilobites in the Moroccan desert near Alnif, Erfoud and Tabourikt over the last three decades, a whole trilobite industry evolved.  This happened in an area where education was scarce and the availability of electricity and running water restricted.  Native Moroccans and nomads found a welcomed (if not their only) income in searching for and preparing trilobites.  Over the years, trilobites have become an important economical factor in the poverty-stricken areas of the High Atlas mountain range where the Moroccan trilobites are found.

According to BURKHARD & BODE (2003), there are well-known manufacturers in Morocco who produce fake trilobites or rather trilobite models.  Fossil dealers who go to Morocco to buy trilobites are well aware of that and know that these trilobites are not real.  Neither are these models sold to them as real trilobites but reproductions.  The cheating does not start there, it starts when these reproductions are thrown onto the trilobite market in masses and sold as the real stuff for little money.  Faking of this nature started in the 1980s due to increasing demand for giant Paradoxides and lack of the real thing.  In the beginning, the old “make-one-out-of-many” was common, but very soon whole trilobites were faked.  It is verified that it was not the Moroccans who started to fake trilobites but American as well as European dealers who inspired them to do so.  The American and European dealers then sold the fake trilobites as the real thing.  Meanwhile the faking has reached levels that include almost any known Moroccan trilobite species and it is possible that there is more false material floating around at this time than real!

But the repairing, restoring or faking is not restricted to Morocco.  It applies as well to some of the Russian trilobites coming from the St. Petersburg region, although the amount of faking is not comparable to that in Morocco.  The reconstructions are usually restricted to replacing missing parts of the exoskeleton, fixing broken-off eyes and spines (every once in a while a whole pygidium may be replaced), waxing and coloring of the carapace or the mounting of isolated trilobites onto matrix other than the one it was found in.  I experienced this myself when trying to prepare the hypostome of a Dysplanus from the Lower Ordovician. The trilobite was completely real but mounted artificially onto a piece of matrix from the Asery level.  Most likely it was done because a trilobite on a nice piece of matrix sells for a much higher price than an isolated specimen.  From a scientist’s point of view, it looked as if this species from the Kunda level had still existed in the younger Asery level, which is not the case.
It has to be said though, that the Russian preparators rarely play dirty.  The trilobites are real but in most cases (Asaphus, Illaenus) are very quickly extruded from the matrix with high-powered blasters using very aggressive media so that the exoskeleton gets an unnatural shine.  They look very nice when finished, but have most likely been polished and waxed and thereby lost surface detail.  Looking at more carefully prepared specimens you will find the characteristic surface details, little inconsistencies produced by nature but lost in specimens that have been blasted too aggressively.  The more rare spiny trilobites like Hoplolichas, Boedaspis, Paraceraurus and so on are for the most part very carefully and skillfully prepared and therefore, very expensive.

Fake trilobites are known even from Bolivia.  I have not had a chance yet to take a look at such material myself but we have been assured that there are assembled trilobites on the market as well as complete fakes made of plaster or resin including both positives and negatives, so watch out!




FAKE FOSSILS main section