Necklaces, bracelets and dinosaur eggs in Vail
Vail CO, Colorado
VAIL, Colorado ” Customers often duck into the shop marked “Lionshead Jewelers” expecting to find, well, jewelry.
Venturing into a back room, though, shoppers stumble on cache of artifacts ” all for sale. A fish fossil hanging on the wall dates back 65 million years (yours for $39,000) while a dinosaur skeleton perched in the front window hails from China’s Gobi Desert. A basketball-sized meteorite relaxes on a stand, offering no clues about its 450-pound weight or its penchant for hurtling through space for billions of years before crashing into Argentina.
“Are these for real?” customers often ask.
“Yeah, they are. Guaranteed. Absolutely,” Store Owner Amad Akkad insists.
“How come they’re for sale?” the customer usually counters. “How come they’re not in museums?”
“Museums have ’em,” Akkad said. “We do also.”
Indeed, strolling through Lionshead Jewelry and Gallery is like touring a mini-Smithsonian. Except that anyone packing cash can buy the fossils at the Lionshead Gallery.
For instance, the store has one of the largest Garfish fossils ever found. Discovered in Wyoming, the fossil dates back 65 million years and appeared on the Discovery Channel’s “Cash and Treasures.”
“It still has the scales on it,” Akkad said.
The store became a romp through bygone eras roughly six years ago, about a year after it opened. Originally, Akkad stuck to jewelry and Western art.
That changed when a female paleontologist who worked at the store inspired Akkad to think outside the Phanerozoic eon. The woman was an avid fossil collector, and one day she brought in a meteorite from her stash.
Fossils had intrigued Akkad ever since he was a boy, when he toured museums in Lebanon with his father, a science teacher. Soon, he and the paleontologist teamed up to attend the fabled fossil and mineral show in Tucson, Ariz., and they started acquiring artifacts through their connections.
At first, Akkad brought the pieces into his shop purely for decoration.
“I started putting a few pieces from our collection here and there and next thing we know, those are the ones everyone is asking about and wants to buy,” Akkad said.
Word spread among fossil hunters that a gallery in Lionshead was buying up big pieces, and soon Akkad started receiving daily e-mails about their latest finds.
Most of the area’s fossil hunters are not paleontologists or even archaeologists, just regular dudes with a passion for digging.
Like Duane Tynsky, a supplier for the Lionshead store. He never studied archaeology, but he makes a living exhuming fossils on a Wyoming ranch. Fifty million years ago, the ranch hosted freshwater lakes and palm trees, but the area dried up. Tynsky, a third-generation fossil hunter, usually digs up fish, bird or turtle fossils, often selling them to tourist or home decor shops.
One reason why fossils often land in stores instead of museums is all the red tape museums must cut through to buy them, Akkad said.
“It’s a money issue. We’re there. We’re available. We have the money. We buy it,” he said. “Museums, they have to go through lots of board meetings and approvals and locating funds for things. Usually, most of the best pieces in the world are not in the possession of museums.”
Those pieces wind up with private owners, he said, which begs a question: If precious archeological finds are cloistered in private homes, does that amount to cheating the public out of seeing them?
“The museums do have their share,” Akkad countered. “And most of these guys in the private homes donate them to museums after they die. Most of my collectors actually donate these pieces to museums.”
Akkad isn’t waiting for death to start spreading the wealth. He regularly donates fossils to museums across the country. Recently, he gave a dinosaur egg to The Hicksville Gregory Museum in Hicksville, NY. Locally, Akkad hopes to donate pieces to a museum in the proposed Lionshead parking structure complex. The $600 million plan to redevelop the structure calls for 90,000 square feet of retail space, including a museum, said Mark Masinter, CEO of development company Open Hospitality Partners in Texas. Developers have yet to secure a tenant for the space, but they have spoken to several major museums about opening a branch in Vail, Masinter said. The museum would open in roughly 2014, he said.
In the meantime, the gallery offers an educational experience for adults and children.
New York resident Scott Schneider, a board member for the Hicksville Gregory Museum, visited the gallery with his family this past spring.
“I thought it was fantastic, more like a museum,” he said. “The quality of the pieces that he has is certainly museum quality and usually you don’t see that when you go into a regular, let’s say, rock shop or fossil store.”
High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or email@example.com.
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