Money from old bones

When bank executive Cliff Hartono quit his job to hunt for fossils two years ago, his friends and family thought he had lost his mind.

But the 28-year-old has proved that the move was no crazy impulse. As he suspected, there is a market for old bones in Singapore.

In April last year, he founded the Set In Stone Gallery - the only one here that deals in fossils - and held an exhibition of rare decorative plant and animal fossils. Another showcase, which includes 16 newly acquired fossils, opened last month. It will run until this Sunday at the gallery, which is located at Artspace @ Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark. The gallery is open daily from noon to 7pm and admission is free.

Mr Hartono, a German citizen who moved here with his family as a child, has sold nearly half of the 31 fossils showcased over the two exhibitions. The most expensive one - a fossil of an Ichthyosaur, a marine reptile - sold for more than $100,000.

Most of the fossils are priced between $10,000 and $20,000, and the least expensive one - the fossil of a sea urchin - was sold for $1,000, he says.

Fossils are the naturally preserved remains of animals or plants that lived before recorded human history. They are usually preserved when they are buried under layers of sand and mud.

The fossils in Mr Hartono's collection range in age from 20 million to 230 million years old.

Those who have bought fossils from his gallery are mostly first-time buyers, he says, adding that they comprise Singaporeans and foreigners.

"Coming here was the first time many of them had never even seen a fossil. They were taken by how beautiful the fossils were and wanted to put them up in their homes," he says.

The aesthetic quality of fossils was what drove Mr Hartono into this line of work. He traces his interest in fossils back to the age of five, when his businessman father returned from a work trip in China with a trilobite, a marine fossil.

"As a kid, it really fired my imagination. A million was already a huge number, and something that was a few million years old was just mind-blowing to me," he recalls.

When he moved to London in 2010 to work after graduating from New York University with a degree in finance, he was again captivated by the beauty of fossils during a visit to the city's Natural History Museum.

"There was a fossilised sea lily on display that struck me as more stunning than any masterpiece of art I had ever seen," he says. "I started thinking then, why can't you buy fossils in galleries like artwork?"

The bachelor spent two years researching extensively on fossils, visiting fossil shops and museums, reading academic texts and meeting industry experts. In 2012, he quit his finance job to begin dealing in fossils full-time.

He does not blame his friends and family members for having grave doubts about his career switch.

"I told them I was quitting my job to dig and sell fossils. I knew it sounded absurd," he says.

A friend provided additional financial backing so he could set up the gallery and stage the first exhibition, but Mr Hartono declines to say how much the investment was.

He travelled alone for his first excavation in Wyoming in the United States, which is known to be one of the richest sources of fossils from the Eocene period (from 33.9 to 56 million years ago). There, he met locals who operated the quarries where excavators searched for fossils, and found fish fossils on the first day of his dig.

He has now made enough connections to acquire choice fossils without going on such digs, after spending time travelling and meeting other dealers, quarry operators and collectors.

For instance, he acquired the current exhibition's highlight piece - a full soft-shell turtle with all its limbs intact - through a tip-off from contacts on the field who knew he was looking for a rare find. It is on sale for more than $100,000.

He declines to say how much he pays for these fossils, and says he is "very confident" about his ability to verify their authenticity, as he sources fossils from only a few select sites.

"I have done extensive research on fossils from these locations, spent time in the field and also witnessed the various stages of the preparation process," he adds.

Response to his gallery here has been positive, says Mr Hartono. "People here are getting increasingly interested and educated about fossils, and with the upcoming dinosaurs exhibition at the ArtScience Museum and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum about to open, I think interest will continue to build," he says.

Owning fossils offers both educational and aesthetic benefits, he notes.

"You can learn all about the different geological time periods, but when you are holding something physical in front of your eyes, the effect is completely different," he says. "I also think people will enjoy having these pieces in their homes because they are not only beautiful but also interesting as they were formed entirely by nature."

His friends and family have also come around, he says.

"After they came here and saw the fossils, they understood what I was doing."

He adds with a laugh that visitors to his gallery who know the most about fossils are usually the children accompanying their parents. His next exhibition is planned for June.

Fossils, he adds, also have the benefit of giving people a perspective on life that an ordinary piece of art cannot.

"Considering that the average lifespan of a human is about 80 years, when you think about how old these fossils are, you truly feel that we are here for only a blink of an eye. So we really need to make use of the short time we have here."

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