Dinosaur 'Boneheads': One Man's Search For T. Rex

Illustration of a T. Rex
iStockphoto.com

If you could do it all over again, what would you be when you grow up? Richard Polsky asked himself that question as he was nearing his 50th birthday. Sure, he was a successful art dealer and author, but Polsky decided it was time to chase an old childhood dream: He wanted to hunt for dinosaurs.

He set off for the Badlands of South Dakota to search for fossils. The people he met and the prehistoric discoveries he made are all part of his new book, Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex. The title, Polsky tells NPR's David Greene, was inspired by a pair of eccentric dinosaur bone hunting twins, Stan and Steve Sacrison. "There have been approximately 45 T. rexs found in the history of the world," Polsky explains, and the Sacrisons have found three of them. "They're known in the trade as 'The Bonehead Brothers' because they're goofballs."

It took some time for the veteran fossil hunters to warm up to Polsky. In the book, he recounts an early exchange he had with Steve Sacrison. "You think you've got what it takes to find a T. rex?" Sacrison asked. "Let me tell you: It's not that easy. You're not going to find anything. You people come out here from parts unknown and think you can take our dinosaurs."

Boneheads
Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex
By Richard Polsky
Hardcover, 208 pages
Council Oak Books
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Not exactly a warm welcome, but Polsky says he can understand their ambivalence about his tagging along on the digs. "We're talking about commercial dinosaur hunters," Polsky explains, "these are not professors with Ph.D.s at big universities. These are guys that survive by their wits and in order to find dinosaurs, you have to go out on land that belongs to private ranchers ... they're not keen about giving you their secrets — letting you know their locations where their dinosaurs are."

It doesn't help that most people are fairly ignorant about what it's actually like to be a fossil hunter — thanks, in large part, to Jurassic Park. In the movies, paleontologists stumble onto a bone, and after brushing off a little sand, reveal a beautiful, a perfectly in-tact dinosaur skeleton. "It's not like that," Polsky says.

Not only is it hot, dirty, tedious work, but paleontologists spend a lot of time finding and identifying fossils that they ultimately leave behind in the field. "It's just so rare that you see something that's worth taking back." Polsky says. "It's a real treasure hunt. It's like winning the lottery."

Polsky was there when one of his fossil hunting friends did win the lottery. He was out on a dig with Bob Detrich (aka "The Fossil King") when they uncovered a T. rex fragment. "In the T. rex world, when you find a dinosaur, you have the honor of naming it after anyone you want," Polsky says. Bob decided to name the fossil "Little Richard" — after his faithful assistant, Richard Polsky.

Now that he's immortalized in the fossil hunting world, Polsky looks back on his time with these paleontologists as a great adventure. "It was a real window into the life and lifestyle of what these people do ... I felt really sad when I left these guys," he says.

And despite any initial misgivings, the hunters eventually embraced Polsky as a member of the team — and are now quite excited about the book. "It was vindication that someone finally wrote about their side of things," Polsky says. "Most books on dinosaurs are scientific. They're written by Ph.D.s, and quiet frankly, they're boring. This really told a story — it told their story."

Excerpt: 'Boneheads: My Search For T. Rex'

Boneheads
Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex
By Richard Polsky
Hardcover, 208 pages
Council Oak Books
List Price: $25

If you could live your life all over again, would you live it the same way? In my case, the road not taken might have led to a career in paleontology — a life of hunting dinosaur bones, the skeletal remains of the largest creatures ever to roam the earth. Instead, I became an art dealer, pursuing another form of big game — blue chip paintings by contemporary masters. Yet after twenty-five years of stalking pictures at art galleries and auctions, the allure of fossils remained strong.

Suddenly at fifty I found an opportunity to experience life all over again. My business was on automatic pilot. The art world was on hold, a financially burdensome marriage was winding down, and my passion for dinosaurs had soared to a new peak. All the while I had maintained my contacts in the fossil world. I continued to collect, attend shows, and read voraciously about new discoveries. Now I was in a position — financially and emotionally — to get out in the field and look for dinosaurs.

I was ready to join the Boneheads. I wanted to dig with them during the day and drink with them at night. I wanted to fête the femur and toast the tibia. I wanted to share in the glory of the find and commiserate over the one that got away. I wanted to see if this was the career I should have originally pursued before I became a fossil myself.

As a boy, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. By the age of five, I could recite the names of all the well-known species. One day, Iglanced at an advertisement on the back of a comic book. A malevolent T. rex stalked its prey with a lava-spewing volcano in the background. For a mere dollar I could be the proud owner of ten genuine fossils. The collection included a horn coral, a trilobite, and a tiny shark tooth. But the real prize was a fragment of bone from the monster depicted in the promotional illustration — a piece of an actual Tyrannosaurus rex.

I truly believed that if I could scrape together a dollar, I could own part of a T. rex. I saved my allowance, a dime at a time, and eventually sent away for the fossils. I was not disappointed. That very week at school, I was a hero during show and tell.

A few days later, I went to visit Cory, a friend who lived in a new sub-division in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit. His backyard was swampland that a developer had begun to fill. A dump truck had recently delivered a large pile of rocks for that purpose. That day, we began flinging them into the water. I grabbed a rock and was about to toss it when I noticed its unusual form. It was a fossilized horn coral.

I began to slide it into my pocket when Cory cried out, "Throw it in!"

"No — it's a fossil," I yelled back.

I'm sure Cory had no idea what I was talking about. He started to grow angry, "I told you to throw it in!"

"It's a fossil — it's valuable. I'm keeping it."

"Then get off my property!"

Calmly pocketing the petrified bit of ancient marine life, I went home secure in the knowledge I had done the right thing.

Little did I know that story would prove to be a metaphor for the paranoia I would encounter in the future when I decided to get serious about collecting. What was it about fossils? It wasn't as if they were alive and could harm anyone. Why did they provoke people and often inspire irrational behavior.

The Boneheads would reveal all.

The Fossil Trail: From Manhattan to Tucson

Few things surprise me when it comes to human behavior and the world of collectibles. That changed when I read an article about "Sue," the greatest T. rex ever discovered. The story had it all: money laundering, fossil poaching, the Sioux nation up in arms, a nasty lawsuit, jail time for the T. rex's would-be owner, and millions for its eventual owner, who celebrated at the Waldorf Astoria wearing a cowboy hat. The incident left such an impression on me that I found myself daydreaming about hunting for "thunder lizards."

Then I began to think big: Why not find my own T. rex?

Henry Galiano was a trained paleontologist who left the museum world to form Maxilla & Mandible, a business largely credited with introducing the phenomenon of natural history specimens as decorative objects. Not long after he opened, interior designers turned to meteorites and amethyst geodes to add an exotic
touch to Manhattan duplexes and hotel lobbies in Las Vegas. In fact, the growing demand for aesthetically pleasing specimens led to the formation of a new auction house category — Natural History — with Henry serving as a paid consultant to Sotheby's.

Everyone who made Henry's acquaintance liked him. His non-competitive personality put people at ease. Henry was the personification of a rather hip scientist — longish well-groomed hair, designer glasses, and clothes that actually fit. He often wore a belt buckle made of sterling silver inlaid with woolly mammoth ivory. At first glance, you had a hard time placing his ethnicity; he was of Cuban-Chinese heritage. Yet once he began speaking, you realized he was just a regular guy who happened to be obsessed with fossils.

Henry was a fossil missionary in his zeal to spread the word. His store on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan was prosperous; yet it was obvious that he wasn't in it for the money. Whenever I stopped by to make a small purchase, he insisted on offering me a whopping discount. He instinctively knew that I bought fossils for the sheer joy of living with them, something he could easily relate to.

Henry stoked my interest in fossils, drawing me into his universe.

While most kids outgrow dinosaurs, Henry retained his love of them and made me feel it was okay to be an adult and still be thrilled by dinosaurs. In that respect, he gave me "permission" to continue my infatuation with fossils.

That day in January, while in New York, I broached the idea of finding my own T. rex. I already knew the obstacles — scarcity and finding a way into the field. Mounting a dinosaur safari is not something you embark on casually. You don't just consult The Yellow Pages or scroll through Google. You have to know an insider in the paleontology community. That's where Henry Galiano came in.

We had a good rapport, but I was still nervous about asking for help. I might come across as a head case. In the art world, it would have been the equivalent of a novice painter requesting to hang out with Jasper Johns. After all, a slew of dinosaur hunters had spent their entire lives in vain pursuit of a T. rex. Was I foolish enough to think I could accomplish what fewer than three dozen hunters in the entire history of paleontology had been able to achieve?

I blurted out, "Listen Henry, I know this is going to sound a little off-the-wall, but I want to hire you to help me get a T. rex."

"You mean you want to buy one? I know of a superb cast with a complete skull and two — "

"No, you don't understand," I said, cutting him off. "I want to find one."

"Are you serious?"

"Absolutely."

Without hesitation, as if this were an everyday request, Henry said, "Sure, why not? I'd love an excuse to get out in the field this summer. And don't worry about paying me — just cover my expenses."

Then he said, "Oh, there's one other thing. Don't expect to be embraced by the other dinosaur hunters."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You have no idea what you're in for," said Henry, suddenly growing restive.

"Dinosaur hunters are a secretive group. Digging for vertebrate fossils is competitive. If you think you're going to get these guys to share their collecting sites with you, you're wrong."

"Come on, Henry. I wouldn't expect that to happen."

"You're dealing with fear at every level. Private ranchers are skittish about allowing collectors on their property. It can take years to win their trust. University professors won't share any of their files unless you're also an academic. The toughest group are the fossil dealers themselves. They only care about protecting their livelihood. When they hear you're sniffing around for a T. rex — which puts you in direct competition with them — they're not going to want to have anything to do with you."

I was taken aback. "Yeah, but I'll have you in my corner."

Trying to remain patient, Henry said, "You're still missing the point. Even though you're aligned with me, you're not one of us. You're asking people who don't know you to take you into their confidence — this is how they make their living. With me, it's different — I know you."

After a short pause, he said, "Why don't you do this — meet me in Tucson next month?"

I knew he was referring to the Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase of Tucson, the unofficial convention of the fossil world.

"I can personally introduce you to some of the major T. rex hunters, but you'll still have to win them over. See what you can learn — whatever they're willing to tell you."

Then, as an afterthought, he added, "There is one guy who might help you out . . . but he's the wackiest of them all."

"Who?"

"Bob Detrich. But he's better known as the Fossil King."

The annual February fair in Tucson boasted the largest number of fossil dealers in one city. Yet the dealers spread themselves throughout hundreds of inexpensive motel rooms. By day, they carefully arrange their specimens on every available surface in their rooms: on beds, dressers, and chairs — even bathtubs. By night, the dealers packed up their treasures and slept in the very beds that only hours earlier served as display cases.

The show's format calls for potential buyers to speed-read each dealer's offerings. Once your eyes lock onto a desirable fossil, then the real fun begins — it's time to bargain.

Collector: "I'll give you $125 for that Phacops rana trilobite."

Dealer: "Sorry, the price is a buck-fifty [$150]. I'm sure you're aware that it's from Sylvania — you know, the Medusa shale quarry which happens to be permanently flooded. You're not going to see any more trilobites crawl out of there!"

Collector: "Yeah, but your trilobite is all curled up. It's also missing its glabella. The dealer down the hall has a Phacops that's almost a full two inches — perfectly flat — with a Paraspirifer bownockeri on the same slab. And he only wants $250 for it!"

Dealer: "So buy it from him!"

Collector: "Alright, forget the trilobite. What about those crinoid stems over there? Those are the biggest blastoids I've ever seen!"

From Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex by Richard Polsky. Copyright 2011 by Richard Polsky. Excerpted by permission of Council Oak Books.

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