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Are trilobites common? Advice on buying trilobites guide...

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Fossils in general, and trilobites in particular, are rarely in top quality, finest state of preservation when they are found. After all, they have been encased in a rock for hundreds of millions of years, exposed to metamorphosis and the movements of the earth's crust, which ultimately lifted them above the surface of the sea. And exposed to roughly every unpleasantness of geological activity, without being completely destroyed in the process of fossilization.

Most of the finds are only disassembled shell parts and debris. Looking at all the photos of amazing complete trilobites, and finest preserved specimens in different websites and collections online, one might easily get the idea that complete and fine preserved trilobites are common, and that finest-complete preservation is not so rare. Perhaps it might seem so especially in the case of more commercially available trilobite species, in example in the case of ordovician trilobites from Russia, or devonian trilobites from Morocco or Oklahoma, USA. But there is a lot of preselection of that material before it goes into preparation and after... Finding complete good preserved trilobites is an exception everywhere and although in some locations preservation is better, this fact should always be kept in mind:

In the field, at the time of discovery, complete good preserved trilobites are extremely rare!

What (some) collectors and online readers usually do not see - is the selection and countless hours in the field to find a single complete trilobite specimen! Nor the countless preparation hours to reveal a molted part of the exoskeleton only, hiding in otherwise promising looking rock cross section...

Complete all natural good preserved trilobites are rare! Good prepared commercially available even rarer...

Countless hours, days and weeks can be spent in the field without encountering anything other than disarticulated and incomplete or molted trilobite exoskeletons, and the amount of work involved in finding and preparing the good ones cannot be adequately quantified.

Some trilobites are destroyed, some fake, most partially preserved - good complete preserved and prepared trilobites are actually very rare, although you can find many partial or massacred examples of some species

However, since fossils are collectibles and thus commodities, there is always a risk (sometimes due to low supply and high demand), that damaged and incomplete specimens are "forced" into a complete condition, to promote sales. Fossils are repaired, restored, supplemented or completely counterfeited. At times one might come to the sad realization that there are more false and falsified items of some trilobite species in circulation than natural finest preserved or simply repaired examples of that same species (for sure true for Scabrella sp. and some rare spiny trilobites)...

Anyway, a clear distinction must be made here: a repair, in the sense of gluing trilobites that were split by the geologist's hammer (during the search), or a minor % restoration of missing shell parts is not a fakery, but a normal procedure in preparation (and often a seal of quality for some species). There is also nothing wrong with the use of some consolidants, which are sometimes necessary, to not impair the stability of the entire preparation. Without the adhesives and consolidants, shell parts could often not be prepared in their actual place.

So even if constant vigilance is often indicated for trilobite collecting, it must not become paranoia (or obsession with 100% natural condition like in megalodon teeth collecting - in trilobite collecting 100% natural state does not exist, unless you collect unglued trilobite cross sections; good preserved shark teeth fossils from well-known USA locations are a lot more common and no preparation required).

What is often referred to as 100% natural and authentic in trilobite collecting - is a trilobite found in a cross section (the only way to find complete specimens is by splitting rocks), prepared out of the rock (matrix) and all parts glued together (and so a crack running through the trilobite and matrix is therefore a good sign of authenticity). The crucial point for trilobite collectors is to be able to distinguish fake, restored and authentic trilobites, but to distinguish between a fast commercial preparation and a slow commercial preparation or a detailed preparation is just as important, because each preparation is by definition a manipulation.

To understand what is meant with "each preparation is by definition a manipulation": in the photo below are 2 smiley-phacops, Adrisiops weugi, (and 2 Drotops in the next example...) for comparison. Both trilobites are the same specie, from the same locality, preserved in similar sticky hard matrix. In commercial preparation time is important, so minor details are often destroyed. This fact is true also for trilobites prepared in USA, Russia, etc., not only for Morocco!

Of course, preservation always plays a role too. By a general rule, we could say that: the best preserved, spectacular looking detailed prepared fossils from some localities, are sometimes easy or easier to prep, compared to similar not as spectacular looking species (just as meticulously prepared) from localities with different preservation! Sometimes it is not possible to prep, without destroying a small %...

In the example below, both specimens were prepared commercially, with same methods, specimen on the left in Morocco, specimen on the right in TDI. The specimen on the left is an example of a good commercial preparation and the example on the right is also an example of commercial preparation, but if you compare the fine details, you can notice some minor differences, which are more obvious in some other commercial preparations. A fast commercial preparation approach in example shows in damage to eye-lenses, damage to skin (erased microgranulation), tuberculation (sharp conical tubercule tips erased or more or less rounded on top of glabella) and other ornamentation, besides air-scribe marks damage. Unfortunately, such finest details are often completely destroyed, although they can separate different subspecies between each other, and trilobite fossils from fakes or sculptured rocks (in case of the worst prepared commercial examples). Details (ornamentation) like this contain scientifically interesting informations...

The real value of fossils is in such tiny details and location and other scientific information, thus in preparation and finding...

This difference in how details are prepared reflects also in preparation time, but although the difference in preservation of tiny details seems minimal to the naked eye, the difference in preparation time can be substantial. Good prepared trilobites with details good preserved are actually quite rare to find in the commercial market, because the amount of work involved cannot be adequately quantified. It is thus correct to say, that each (commercial) preparation is a manipulation, especially if it destroys a large % of microscopic details.

A. weugi, Issoumour, Morocco - left prepared in Morocco, right prepared in TDI. Minimal difference in preservation of details - both specimens were sandblasted, but if you compare the shape of tubercles on top of the glabela and eye-lenses, you can distinguish between a bit faster (more aggressive) and slower (less aggressive) approach...

Another example of 2 authentic trilobites - Drotops megalomanicus. Why each preparation is by definition a manipulation and the difference between a fast commercial preparation and a slow meticulous preparation is perhaps more evident in this example. This difference in how details are prepared can reflect also in 10x longer preparation time! Preservation and other factors always plays a role too, however - although this examples are of Moroccan species, we can find similar examples of fast commercially prepared trilobites (with burned skin) from USA, Russia etc.

Two specimens of Drotops megalomanicus - guessing by the tuberculation same subspecies and same locality... A nice example of Drotops on the top was prepared fast for commercial purpose, otherwise most collectors would find it too expensive. The specimen below (coated white with ammonium chloride for photo) was not prepared commercially. This slow preparation by A.Ž. took about 150 hours. The difference between cc. 15-20 hours and cca. 150 hours of preparation is more evident if you zoom in and compare the shape of tuberculation on the glabella, librigenia, eyes and tiny "spines" on the pleuras...

It's details (ornamentation) like this, that can help you distinguish between a fast made cheap fake and an authentic trilobite too. For example, below is a cheap fast-made fake Drotops (quick cheap cast). If you compare the detail with authentic Drotops in the photo above and zoom in to see air bubbles (holes) in resin, it's easy to guess that this is a fast made fake:

a fake one (cast of a Drotops)

Another example of a very common fake and authentic specimen below for comparison:

TOP: a fake of a rare Acanthopyge trilobite fossil from Morocco. BOTTOM: Authentic specimen, but unfortunately very frequently faked due to it's rarity, size, interesting shape and lack of free standing spines making it easy to cast.

There are many common trilobite species, which are often found more or less complete (and not worth producing fakes), but considering commercial preparation you often pay for what you get (and resellers love buying cheap in bulk and reselling...).

Monetary value does not guarantee authenticity or quality, but a very cheap authentic trilobite is almost always a massacred trilobite specimen (with preparation errors covered/hidden and more or less exoskeleton details destroyed in fast commercial preparation) or a fake.

Crotalocephalina gibbus... - a species often massacred or painted over, destroyed in fast commercial preparation, because usually almost impossible to preserve details in less as 15-20 or 30 preparation hours (impossible to resell for 20$ or 50$) due to sticky matrix and microgranulation.

What about restoration (another aspect of manipulation in preparation)?

Not to defend the manipulation of commercially prepared massacred trilobites. However... Sometimes minor restoration is ok and needed for display purpose. Just about all the big dinosaurs you see displayed in a museum have extensive restoration. The chances of finding a 100% fully intact huge dinosaur is pretty much non-existent, although weathered partial dinosaur bone fragments can be common to find in some deposits. Similar as with trilobites...

The topic of "restorations" is a little bit of a taboo among fossil dealers/sellers. Just one of those things where so many sellers do it, some more than others and hence by discussing it and bringing the topic out in the open, you are simply going to step on a lot of toes. But...

The crucial point for trilobite collectors is to be able to distinguish the real from the wrong, to be able to identify repairs and restorations, and more important - to interpret them, to classify them correctly and to quickly expose complete counterfeits as such! But also to understand the difference between a fast commercial preparation and a fine quality preparation, otherwise just about any complete authentic trilobite can be described and priced as top quality. More on this in examples below. This advice can help you save some money too.

Some trilobites are extremely rarely found complete or with all the spines in place, perfectly symmetric and natural. For example Scabrella, or Burmeisterella (known as Elvis bug) is probably one of the best known fakes, there are probably less as 5 real and complete all natural examples known. Like all alleged Elvis Presley sightings since his death, almost all Burmeisterella trilobites are fakes or composited from different parts. Some other trilobite species are also only known and described from fragmentary remains. Terataspis grandis i.e., one of the bugs never found complete. These are the extremely rare examples, but in the commercial world some more common (although still rarely found in good complete preservation) spiny trilobite species often appear described as top quality, finest state of preservation...

Elvis - a well-known fake... Often composited from several real parts with fake spines

Perfection is rare!

It's a mystery how so many of the fragile spiny trilobite species like Boedaspis ensifer or Walliserops trifurcatus or Andegavia and other (not only from Morocco - when it comes to very expensive specimens Moroccan trilobites are in minority) are available for collectors commercially - in "perfect preserved finest state condition", with no damage to the fragile spines, no bite marks... And often prepared flying...

Where are all the partial, broken and molted specimens? Restored? Or material that goes in preparation preselected?

Although it's amazing to see trilobite species like this Andegavia (Heliopeltis) complete...

A rare trilobite and a specie very rarely found complete, almost never (in less as 1 to 30 promising looking cross sections found).

Let's have another look at the same specimen (in photo above) in preparation photos below (presented for educational purpose with permission from the author). Can you see the restoration work (in photo below) clearer?

This is what you are paying hundreds of dollars in margin to some resellers - in some cases (when priced and described as "top quality, all natural"), and why constant vigilance should be indicated, although there are good and bad dealers and preparators everywhere, and although some of the best authentic prepared examples of Moroccan trilobites come from Moroccan preparators, it doesn't hurt to be careful when hopping to buy rare or spiny trilobite species for a "cheaper" price.

If it sounds too good to be true, it is:

Prepared in Moroccan lab for resale with fake spines... The same specimen as in photo above, during preparation process - 3 spines prepared freestanding were removed (and were glued back later), probably tips restored aswell... In this state clearer to see hit marks, that were covered up with a sandblaster or paint later; and you can also see the carved matrix where missing spines "should" be preserved (white-gray color)... More as 50% of the spines were restored (carved from matrix) and painted... Acceptable restoration? Perhaps, but often not disclosed to the customer... A good example of what ends up for resale described as "top rare authentic"...

Always ask for prep-photos and learn how to interpret them or get help from the experts.

Another thing worth noting...

Don't you ever wonder why some trilobites are prepared flying? Because it's fashionable and more expensive? With some species caution is advised... Ask for photos of preparation. This type of preparation makes it easier to hide composited parts added to supplement the partialy preserved specimens, in some cases. In example, Walliserops with flying fork is a reason enough for caution, a flying fork is often composited from a different specimen, although described as 100% natural by resellers.

Notice the colored epoxy used to attach the fork to the body? A careful examination would probably show that the fork has been composited, not just a glued break crack...

Always ask for preparation photos and buy from trustworthy sellers. Don't just compare price, compare details (like granulation, terrace lines, tuberculation, spines and how exoskeleton looks) with details on photos of other trilobites - you can find many photos of the same species in google or website.

Some trilobites are not easy to prep with all spines undamaged. Often spines and other parts are glued or restored (fake, if not noted by resellers) and complete trilobite covered with paint to hide such restoration and damage in preparation, but this doesn't stop the resellers to describe as "fantastic preserved 100% natural rare top quality". Like in case of this Walliserops trifurcatus trilobite on the left. For comparison an authentic Walliserops prepared in our lab with all restorations marked on the right. Pay attention to the shape, symmetry and how uniform the real spines look compared to faked spines:

LEFT: Walliserops trilobite destroyed in fast commercial preparation, with fake spines and fake fork. RIGHT: Walliserops trilobite with all spines authentic prepared free-standing (not glued), and noted restoration to fork

Sometimes complete fakes are sold as 100% authentic, like in example of this Comura:

total fake placed in real matrix - actually difficult to say, could be a real but totally destroyed Comura with fake spines and paint

Always pay attention to details. For comparison an example of authentic good preped Comura trilobite:

authentic trilobite Comura bultyncki

The quality of preparation matters, because often quality and 100% authenticity come hand in hand. I'm not writting this for marketing reason, but because I'm sick of over-priced fakes, common destroyed and restored fossils (not just trilobites), all described as "100% authentic, fantastic, superb preservation, rare" so often...

Perfection is rare in all fossils and therefore restoration in commerce quite often for display reasons (unfortunately not always disclosed to the buyers) - not only in the case of Moroccan trilobites. We can often hear: "if from Morocco, buyer beware", but let's have a look at a few examples of skilfully restored or faked trilobites, prepared in Russia, USA and Canada:

Bufoceraurus bispinosus (Raymond & Barton, 1913) from Canada LEFT: authentic Bufoceraurus in 100% natural condition (foto courtesy: Mark Bourrie); RIGHT: the same specimen (foto courtesy: AMNH website) after restoration and color enhancement with varnish. Of course, the restored trilobite looks spectacular and we don't argue about "what is acceptable restoration", it has no scientific value and although the restored tuberculation/spines are exaggerated, we don't consider that a problem if disclosed! Considering that this is a well-known species, we can applaud the skilled work performed on this spectacular trilobite, the problem is however when such specimens are sold or published online or even in books as 100% authentic. This isn't the only example of a spectacular looking skilfully restored trilobite, presented without any description about resto-work. In contrast to often stereotyped Moroccan fakery, such restoration on bugs from USA and Russia, can fool also experts and museum researchers (some descriptions about restoration were added in AMNH website only after the note of collectors). In that regard, such non-disclosed restoration is more problematic as Moroccan "shoe-polish" and obvious fakes.

Another example of restoration and why preparation-progress photos are important, not just in the case of Moroccan trilobites:

Greenops from Canada, with restoration to weathered parts of cephalon (foto courtesy: Kevin Brett)

An example of commercialy prepared trilobite Hoplolichas furcifer from Russia under UV light with some % of restoration (usually described in %):

Just an example to show that perfection is rare, often when trilobites are found some pieces are lost. Often the shell is not good preserved or some areas are weathered, but when good prepared in the end can look very aesthetic, with some restoration. Hoplolichas furcifer (foto credit: Maximo)

Another example of commercial heavy restoration, but not from Morocco! After the white-gray areas are painted in black it would look perfect:

gray areas are restoration (foto courtesy: Matt H.)

How about this Russian twins - can you guess which one is authentic and which one is a fake Asaphus?

LEFT: a fake (cast) ... RIGHT: authentic ...Moroccan "cheap" fakes are in general easy to identify, but there are preparators in USA, Canada, Russia, EU, which are really masters at forgery and restoration. Gotta be careful... Know the species of the bugs you are interested in. Compare details! Instead of trusting COA (certificates of authenticity are worthless papers which can be produced by anyone with a printer) ask for step-by-step preparation photos and close-up photos of details!

How about this fake - (exaggerated) spines and faked eyes Russian lichid?:

a fake Hoplo...

In recent years the quality of the counterfeits has increased significantly, considering the composited and restored trilobites. Parts of different species or even different genera have been cobbled together - mostly morphologically correctly constructed. And the techniques used are better, therefore more likely to be deceptive unfortunately. It is always highly recommended to ask for preparation step by step photo proof of authenticity.

In many collections there are trilobites that have been at least partially supplemented, in a way that some collectors and experts would already speak of a partial counterfeit. While some restoration to some trilobites (in example from Morocco), are relatively easy to identify (lack of tuberculation or micro-granulation), there are cases of restoration on trilobites (in example from Russian deposits or USA), that are somewhat more difficult to notice. On the outside, there are sometimes no direct indications of the restorations that had been carried out professionally, even when viewed superficially under a magnifying glass.

The trilobite shell (of the Asaphus or Megistapidella in photo example below) looked very homogeneous overall, with no discernible color or level differences. It was only when irradiated with long-wave UV light that the first suspicions arose when areas as large as centimeters showed significant fluorescence. BUT! UV light method is well suited to locating adhesives and synthetic resins, since most of these materials fluoresce under UV light. However, one has to say that with non-transparent, color-covering lacquers or some colors, this method does not work easily; the color must first be removed.

As it turned out in the authenticity test demonstrated in photo example of Asaphus, about 8-10% of the surface of the Asaphus punctatus was supplemented by synthetic resin, and at least between 2 and 3% of the Asaphus cornutus in another test. The extent of both additions is greater than what is sometimes regarded as acceptable by experts or advertized by resellers, especially if these deficiencies were not expressly pointed out during the sale. But it should also be noted here that a forgery only qualifies, if it is advertised as "100% natural", "authentic"!

It must be pointed out too, however, that although the opinions are quite divided - minor restoration in this context is considered to be quite legitimate, when disclosed to the customers. Of course, restorations can be accepted for aesthetic reasons. This is a matter of subjective opinion and it goes without saying that a seller is more inclined to tolerate something like this, if it promotes sales, but to be honest, it seems majority of collectors also prefer restoration to otherwise all natural trilobites with holes of missing shell in the exoskeleton, for the same price (some minor restoration or repair, should not effect the commercial value dramatically if disclosed, compared to the same unrestored specimen)...

As mentioned, good preserved trilobites are not common and perfect prepped complete trilobites are extremelly rare! Many close to perfect looking symetric complete rare trilobites are rarely found in such perfect "100% natural" condition, there are almost always some minor "imperfections" (Not always, but almost, unless lucky... A lot depends on species, deposits...), such as missing or broken spines, missing molted librigenia, slight disarticulations, weathered areas, missing shell parts from the break...

Often you can only see "perfect" looking good prepared specimens... Russian ordovician trilobites are a great example of perfect looking fine state of preservation, thanks to preselection and restoration.

An example of restored Megistaspidella in UV light, normal amount of restoration...

Trilobite in UV, restoration shows in "greenish-yellow" color...

Some fossil sellers are very trustworthy, but did not specialize in trilobites, we can assume no intention to scam the buyers is made in some cases. Like in the case of Russian trilobites, acquired from trustworthy dealers or preparators, who declare restorations exactly and do their best in preparation - as mentioned, if fully disclosed to the buyer, restorations can be accepted for aesthetic reasons. And a neat and reputable dealer who values satisfied customers will always fully disclose any work done.

The counterfeiting of complete trilobites or buying and reselling with the intention of making a profit on fakes to resell is more problematic, especially to beginner collectors. Indications of some fakes can be made with a closer look at the surfaces of both the trilobite and the surrounding matrix. An almost unmistakable sign of complete counterfeiting are small holes in the material, created by casting a trilobite using synthetic resin, partly mixed with stone powder.

When the resin mass hardens, gas bubbles trapped in the resin rise, burst on the surface and leave the holes. This can