Alaska lion fossil, expected to get $45K, doesn’t sell at auction

Where’s the pride? Alaska’s Leo is a no-sale

AUCTION: Up to $45,000 was expected for the specimen.

By MIKE DUNHAM – mdunham@adn.com

Published: December 15th, 2008 12:02 AM
Last Modified: December 15th, 2008 01:02 AM

You gotta feel sorry for poor old Alaska Leo — or at least his skull. The fanged fossil of a 10-foot-long prehistoric American lion recovered by a gold miner in Alaska, went on the auction block in Los Angeles last Sunday but didn’t draw enough of a bid to reach the minimum price set by the seller.

That price, known as the “reserve,” is usually secret. It appears the seller hoped to get at least $35,000 and as much as $45,000. Bidders didn’t budge past $19,000, according to D. Levi Morgan, the director of public relations for Bonhams & Butterfields, the firm that handled the auction.

Paleontologists say the lion measured 10 feet long, weighed 600 pounds and had 5-inch fangs — but no mane. How do they know that by looking at bones? asked one reader. I don’t know, but since my boyhood infatuation with Roy Chapman Andrews (I wept when word of his death reached my tender ears in 1960) I’ve clung to the creed that all paleontologists are always right, even when they disagree.

Fossils of the big cat are rare, especially in Alaska. Patrick Druckenmiller, curator of earth sciences at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, told the Daily News that most of the few, scattered Alaska specimens are fragments. But the fact that the animal stood at the top of the food chain, he added, meant that even those fragments can supply valuable information about the entire ecosystem of the time.

The 17-inch-long skull that was offered at auction is considered complete and in excellent condition, according to a press release. It might have a lot to tell us about life in Alaska 25,000 years before statehood. Druckenmiller sounded particularly interested in knowing where these bones popped up. Such information would help establish the lion’s range.

That may never be known. Aside from the skimpiest of details, Bonhams & Butterfields was uncertain about who found it, when and where. A placer operation in the Interior seems like a good possibility, but that’s a lot of area and it might have been found anytime in the past 100 years.

If it was sold around the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair — it’s part of a collection from St. Louis — the paper trail may be long gone. But, hypothetically, mineralization in the bone and tooth enamel might supply a clue to narrow things down.

Information is good. But don’t forget Alaska Leo’s sensitivities. He was a lion, for cryin’ out loud, a species synonymous with pride, king of the beast, terror of herbivores, lord of the tundra. And now nobody even wants his head for a really cool ashtray.

Of course it would be a very expensive ashtray. A natural history museum really would be a better place than the coffee table in someone’s smoking room.

But either way, isn’t it time for Alaska Leo to come home?

Morgan held out that possibility. The reserve is usually a secret, but let’s assume optimistically that, while more than $19,000, it might be less than $35,000.

Interested parties should contact the auction house’s Los Angeles office at 1-323-850-7500, Morgan said. The company can also be found at www.bonhams.com/us.

Mike Dunham can be reached at mdunham@adn.com.

http://www.adn.com/life/alaskana/story/622295.html

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org

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