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Fossil hunter turns passion into business
By Jim Davis
Herald Business Journal Editor
He found his first fossil as a boy along a newly built road in Issaquah, a 30 million-year-old snail that he still keeps on his mantelpiece.
Since then, Matt Heaton developed a lifelong passion for collecting fossils, taking trips around the country searching for his newest finds.
"I can sit there with a sledgehammer and break rock for a week straight," Heaton said. "People think I'm nuts."
It wasn't until last year that Heaton, 35, decided to pursue his hobby as a profession. He started FossilEra, an online business selling fossils that he buys from suppliers around the world.
Heaton operates FossilEra out of the basement and garage of his Bothell home. His stock includes dinosaur teeth and bones, petrified wood and, his own personal favorite, trilobites. Prices range from $5 to $2,395.
"I buy these in lots of 50 or 100," Heaton said. "I photograph them, make them look pretty and sell them."
A commercial trade in fossils is controversial in paleontological circles. Many fossils are illegal to trade, including ones taken from China or Mongolia or collected on federal lands.
For his part, Heaton says he avoids illegal fossils "like the plague." And he sees value in making fossils accessible to the public.
"This type of stuff that is being sold is not scientifically valuable," Heaton said. "But putting this stuff in the hands of a kid is going to spark an interest for life."
Selling fossils commercially is a "mega-million dollar business," said Paul Kester, the president of the Northwest Paleontological Association, which meets at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Kester teaches science at Holy Rosary School in Edmonds and works during the summers for the National Park Service at Fossil Butte National Monument near Kemerer, Wyoming.
He says he has fossils in his collection purchased from commercial dealers.
"I don't consider it a problem," Kester said. "Unfortunately there are a few who do illegal things that are giving it a bad name."
Fossils taken illegally and sold into private collections robs the scientific community of valuable information, Kester said.
But he said the commercial dealers he's worked with in the past have been consistent about pointing out anything they think is scientifically important.
There can be a balance between science and commerce, said Walter Stein, who runs PaleoAdventures, a fossil hunting tour company that operates in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. He wrote in an email that his company separates fossils into three categories: common, commercial grade and scientific grade.
Common fossils are generally given away to people on tours or family and friends.
Commercial grade fossils are common enough that they're usually unwanted by museums, but can be sold "to pay the electric bill."
"When I find a nice isolated T. rex tooth, I like to say that, 'Nature has provided me a grant,'" Stein wrote.
With his company, Stein says any rare fossils found are sold only to public museums.
In early February, Heaton's basement was filled with hundreds of fossils, many that he purchased during a show in Tuscon, Ariz.
In one corner, he set up a camera over a black cloth to photograph fossils so the images can be put online.
In another side of the room were floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with black boxes of fossils ready to be shipped.
In his garage, Heaton keeps a work bench to get fossils ready to add to his collection or to send to customers.
The bench includes a microscope over a plexiglass screen with a miniature sand blaster and an air hammer within easy reach.
"When I get the fossils, they're usually 95 percent finished, but I might need to give them a little polish," he said.
During college, Heaton studied another passion, computer science. He says he bumped around the Seattle start up scene for years while continuing to fossil hunt on vacations in upstate New York, Utah and other locations.
He always felt that he could make a living selling fossils commercially. He was reluctant to take that step, worrying about mixing the stress of a job with his hobby.
Last year, Heaton came to the conclusion that he was working only to fuel his hobby. So he decided to give the business a go.
He borrowed money from friends and family, purchased enough stock and opened FossilEra in November.
In his first six weeks, Heaton filled more than 500 orders. With a rush from people buying fossils for Christmas gifts, Heaton said he made more than $50,000 in sales in December.
FossilEra already has more than 3,000 followers on Facebook. Heaton says some of the more interesting photos he posts on his site, www.fossilera.com, can go viral on social media.
His top seller has been megladon teeth, a type of prehistoric giant shark that roamed the oceans millions of years ago.
That's followed by 3-dimensional fossils of trilobites, a type of animal with a distinctive exoskeleton that died out in a mass extinction more than 250 million years ago.
Any type of dinosaur bone or teeth is popular. He said the fossils he purchases and sells are not particularly rare. But it takes time to prepare them.
And that's another concern with the cottage industry: Fakes.
Heaton said that it's been estimated that 90 percent of the fossils that come from Morrocco are fake.
"When there is money involved, people can be very creative," Heaton said.
Heaton said that he was burned early in collecting fossils, but now can easily identify fake fossils.
Usually, he can tell just by looking at them. Some, he needs to place under a black light to see tell-tale traces of resin. Others he has to put under a microscope.
Stein of PaleoAdventures said that some restoration is essential for the stability of fossils.
But some fossils aren't collected properly.
Unethical suppliers will put together completely sculpted specimens or put together a hodgepodge mix to make a fossil look more complete or unique than it really is.
"Fossil collectors need to really know what they are buying and do plenty of research first.
"They need to ask the right questions. Who found it? Where was it found? Was it legally collected? Is there any restoration? Is it complete? Are all the elements from the same individual," Stein wrote.
He said ethical dealers generally get great reviews, and unethical ones get called publicly and eventually weeded out.
Heaton offers that information on each fossil.
He plans to head to the field later this year with his fiancee, Kim Burlingham, has gone on some digs.
"I can't wait until the weather warms up and I can get out," Heaton said.
He even plans to help a friend with a dig in Colorado, searching for dinosaur bones.
Those are his least favorite fossils, because they can only be seen by the pieces. Instead, he likes trilobites, which have more than 30,000 species of the animal.
"You can break a rock and see the whole animal," Heaton said.
The Herald Business Journal is a sister publication of the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter under Sound Publising.