LOS ANGELES – Among all the fossils, skeletons, meteorites and gemstones for sale Sunday at the I.M. Chait Gallery natural history auction, lot #127 stands out.
It's a mummified baculum, or penis bone, from a species of walrus that went extinct 12,000 years ago. The piece is more than 4 feet long, curves to a point and is covered with weathered skin and dry muscle tissue.
Who would want to own such an odd thing? Lots of people, including technology executives, Hollywood producers and A-list celebrities. Bidding starts at $16,000.
"Size matters, and the walrus has got everybody beat," said Josh Chait, operations director for his family's auction house in Beverly Hills. "It's a little sick, but where else are you going to get another one? That's how collectors think."
For the rich, famous, and scientifically literate, collecting such things has become a trendy hobby, despite concerns from scientists who say such artifacts belong in museums where they're available to researchers, educators and the public.
Directors Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg are fossil collectors, as are actors Nicolas Cage and Harrison Ford — yes, the same Ford who in the "Indiana Jones" films has played a university archaeologist determined to save such treasures from falling into the wrong hands.
Fossils and other ancient relics also are attainable for the average collector and perfect conversation pieces for the home, said Chait.
"It's not like you have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can get decent pieces that are unique and ancient for a couple hundred," he said.
Chait's offerings at its biannual natural history auction also include two flies trapped in amber while mating, estimated to be worth at least $700; a 22-foot fossil skeleton of a "sea monster" Mosasaurus from the Cretaceous period, which could go for $100,000, and meteorites, minerals and many other long dead creatures great and small.
As for the walrus item, many mammals have bacula. In Alaska, they're called "oosiks," polished and used as knife handles sold to tourists. This particular baculum was found preserved in permafrost in northern Siberia by prospectors looking for mammoth tusks.
Collectors are attracted to the wow — or ick — factor of a unique piece, but they're also smart, said David Herskowitz, the dealer who curated the Chait auction.
Mostly, they attract men, said Levi Morgan, a spokesman for the Bonhams & Butterfields auction house.
"We call them big boys' toys," he said, but because of the prices, "these are not to be played with by children."
Interior designers also bid for polished and mounted artifacts.
Elaine Levin, 50, was looking to decorate her new home in Long Beach when she started collecting fossils, petrified wood and skeletons of exotic animals. She installed a skeleton of a giraffe in her living room and a slab of fossilized mud with the imprint of a fish and a stingray above the fireplace.
The growing popularity of fossil collecting is a concern for Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Researchers and educators lose when commercial prospectors "rip stuff out of the ground and clean it up to sell it," he said.
"It might look to you like an old ash tray, but the position a fossil is found in tells you a lot," he said. "Is every little scrap of bone and mud valuable scientific information? No, but commercial collectors and dealers aren't qualified to say."
Collectors say many fossils would remain undiscovered or be destroyed by wind and rain if there were no market or incentives for prospectors.