Atop one of our record shelves sits a fossilized trilobite, given to us by a dear friend of the Grand Empress. We’ve long cherished the gift, but as we went about some cleaning chores while catching yesterday’s Ravens-Patriots tilt, a troubling thought entered our consciousness while giving the arthropod a shine: how do we know it’s genuine? It is such a perfect-looking specimen, we now wonder whether the ridges of its exoskeleton were created by human hands.
Alas, we certainly lack the expertise necessary to make such a determination—as do the vast majority of consumers who annually sink millions of dollars into the fossil market. That is why fakes flourish in Morocco, the global capital of trilobites, where the fossil industry employs an estimated 50,000 people. Gathering high-quality trilobites from the Atlas Mountains has become increasingly expensive, since the most accessible specimens were sold off years ago. And so counterfeiting has become something like an art form, albeit with an assembly-line flavor:
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.
These recommended techniques for sussing out fakes begin with the simple (looking for air bubbles) and move onward to the drastic (sawing a specimen in half). We reckon that few collectors have the wherewithal to try any of these, though. As in all markets dealing with artifacts of globe-crossing provenance, tremendous trust must be placed in middlemen. Fortunately, the bulk of our species tends toward honesty.
(Image via Heinrich Harder, the greatest German paleo artist of the 20th century)