My Collector Life
by Frank Daniels
I wrote this essay as a form of personal resume for the position of collection expert, especially as it applies to fossil woods.
I’ve always been a collector. It’s part genetic and part behavior modification. I can picture my seven-year-old self, alone at a dimly lit dining room table. It was winter. A fire blazed in the corner fireplace, yet the hose was still cold. This was at my parents’ fishing/beach house on Long Island. We lived there all summer and frequently came out for weekends the rest of the year. Before me lay an open, dark blue, trifold, coin collecting album with indented circles designed to hold one coin from each mint for each year. I had those books for pennies, nickels, and dimes at that age and later added more. Each had plenty of empty slots. My dad brought home rolls of coins in those denominations for me to sort through over the weekend. That would have been during the late fifties. We drove out on Route 25A. The Long Island Expressway hadn’t been thought of yet as it wasn’t yet needed.
In later years when my mom went shopping in downtown Roslyn, she’d leave me at the Savings and Loan where’d I’d buy rolls of half dollars and sit on the leather-backed bench by the window, unrolling coins, hoping to find Franklin half dollars in better condition than what I had. I sought perfection and rarity along with interest. The half dollar rolls would normally comprise mostly Franklins half dollars, some Liberty Standing half dollars, and rarely a Barber half dollar, which were most recently minted in 1915. Back then in the fifties and early sixties, the dimes, quarters, and half dollars were made of silver. Pennies were copper and nickels were nickel. The idea then, as it had been since the inception of the United States of America (and all of modern societies), was that the metals composing the coins were worth the face value of the coin. Old silver dollars cost one dollar at a federal reserve bank. My dad sometimes brought home fifty at a time.
My father also took me to beaches and fields to hunt Native American arrowheads. We found many. He taught me how to see them. Our best successes were on a nearby beach after a storm dredged and mixed the sand. We’d go at low tide and start the hunt. My dad grew up on a beach in Queens and developed an eye for arrowheads as a young man. Before I learned to see them, when he would find one, he’d stop with the arrowhead in the sand between the tips of his shoes and say Uh oh. I soon learned that meant there was an arrowhead between his feet and would run over, full of excitement. Years later I trained myself to spot fossil woods and other geologic creations. Sometimes I even say Uh oh when I find one.
Before leaving for Colorado at age eighteen for college and to ski, I never left a Post Office without a few plate blocks. I had a collection of railroad spikes and glass insulators I’d find by the tracks. I started collecting foreign currency in fifth grade and earned a Boy Scout merit badge in Numismatics. In 1964 the government stopped using silver in coinage. I had no interest in collecting cheap metal clad coins, so I was done collecting modern coinage. My main hobby in high school was competitive target shooting. It’s like meditating. It is precise. I broke the league record. Then came years of college and skiing and wandering and living on a tight budget, where collecting was not much happening, although I did put together a nice set of old Pepsi bottles when I lived in Denver. I completed four college majors after bailing on Physics: History, Political Science, English, and Education. In 1978, I completed a six month, live-in, intensive Zen Macrobiotic training as one of four students under the tutelage of Sensei Naboru Muramoto at Asunaro Institute of Eastern Studies. Later a law degree came my way at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I lived in the EastWest Study house and gave lessons on Macrobiotic cooking and pickle making, which helped me quite a bit as I worked my way through my final six years of university studies. I was admitted into the Colorado Bar and Mensa and was elected District Attorney three times.
My collecting nature was never extinguished, just simmering until sufficient time and resources presented themselves, like decades old eggs of desert amphibians, dormant while awaiting rain. A few years after law school, I inherited half of my father’s coin collection. This reignited my collecting nature. I returned to coins big time, completing a full set of Draped Bust silver dollars, including major varieties (1795-1803) and significantly enlarging my Morgan and Peace Dollar collections. I studied every book ever written on silver dollars. When the country’s leading numismatist came out with a new, two-volume encyclopedia on US Silver Dollars, I read the chapters on Early Dollars and Morgan Dollars and sent the author a list with 29 corrections (all but two were arguably typos).
My goal for life after law school had always been to move back to the Western Slope, the wild side of Colorado, where I had spent a year in Aspen as a ski bum. I did so in 1983 after being hired as a deputy district attorney in Grand Junction. I had long been an active backpacker, mountain climber, and runner. (I’ve climbed the fourteen-thousand-foot peaks of Colorado, all sixty-two – a full set.)
In my early years in Western Colorado, while backpacking with a friend near Utah’s Escalante River, I came across an area rich in petrified wood in the form of standing logs, recently unearthed by a flash flood. This led to another trip the following year so that I could take my friend, Vince Jones, who collected petrified wood. I didn’t collect a sample to show him because I was on the first leg of a four-day, fifty-mile, backpacking trip requiring ropes to scale cliffs, and I didn’t want to add a rock to my load.
The trip with Vince was life-changing for me. He was a retired FBI agent who moved to Grand Junction in 1950 and shortly thereafter began to collect petrified wood. All along the way through the eroded Colorado Plateau of Colorado and Utah, Vince gave me a lesson in petrified wood hunting from the perspective of an investigator. The first formation he pointed out was the Morrison since it is exposed along the highway on the way west out of town. That’s the best formation for finding petrified wood. The wood is agatized and colorful. Then he pointed across the valley. The Bookcliffs are Mancos Shale formation. Don’t waste your time looking for wood there. You might find some shark teeth. After the turn to Hanksville and a decent into the San Rafael River valley, Vince pointed to the West. See those steep cliffs with the prominent horizontal bands? That’s the Sommerville formation, he said. Is that a good place to look for petrified wood? I asked. No. But climb to the top and look around because the next layer up is the Morrison. The entire trip was a lesson provided by a master. After checking out the site I’d discovered the year before, which was by then reburied and inaccessible, we spent another three days touring wood locations that Vince had been going to for decades, beginning in the Circle Cliffs and then wrapping around the southern edge of the Henry Mountains.
One thing led to another, and my collecting interest dove warp speed into petrified wood. I lost interest in coins and became obsessed with wood. How was it that this gemstone from the desert was part of a living tree when the dinosaurs roamed? Although married, raising a family, and working as a very busy trial lawyer, I managed to dig about as deep as one can into the subject of petrified wood, without getting into the rather dry microscopic details necessary for wood identification. Since this was before the onset of the computer age, I frequently asked my local librarian to obtain an inter-library loan of some obscure book on paleobotany, geology, or wood anatomy. I hiked hundreds of miles in the deserts and mountain of the West in search of these elusive gems, which is how I know firsthand how rare top quality wood really is. Once word got out about a good spot, it was quickly depleted. In places where the wood once seemed boundless, you can walk all day and not see a scrap. The first rockhounds had the benefit of thousands of years of erosion. The rest of us don’t.
I began attending rock shows in Quartzsite, Tucson, Denver, Madras, Prineville, and many other places. I’d never before experienced so much readily available top grade petrified wood. My timing was right. The rock pow wows of the 70s and 80s and even the 90s were amazing, a happenstance of time and human activity that resulted in the great wood migrating from the wilds to collectors and dealers. In 2001, I traveled to Louisiana and came back with a 3000+ pound collection of the best quality Louisiana palm wood on planet earth, a collection started in the 1950s. That same summer we traveled to Nova Scotia on family vacation where we happened to visit three fossil-rich beaches, including the amazing Fossil Cliffs of Joggins. Quote from one of my daughters as I searched a cool, fog-shrouded, rocky beach on the Bay of Fundy: Why can’t we just go to a beach in Mexico like everyone else. In Oregon, I would leave my family at a hotel with a pool as I searched through the hoard of a local rockhound or photographed a collection for one of my books.
For the first several years I’d just buy pieces for my collection. Eventually I began to buy extras to sell. I’d buy three and sell two, and so on, just trying to help finance my trips. Before long I developed a policy of seeking perfection. When I found wood that was about as perfect as wood gets, I’d buy as much as I could.
I learned early on with coins to appreciate perfection in collectibles. A 1893-S silver dollar in fine condition was $2,000 and in MS-65 uncirculated condition it was $400,000. No one wanted Native American artifacts that were glued. With petrified wood, the industry standard was the standard generally applied to fossils, where added glues and stabilizers were expected and normal without being noted.
As I moved into collecting agates and mineral specimens, I became aware of practices in those areas. Collectible agates were never glued or altered in any way other than to be cut and polished, and mineral specimens had to be marked with an “R” if they had been repaired in the slightest manner, even a miniscule drop of unnoticeable adhesive.
I learned as a collector in the Morrison formation on the Colorado Plateau was that the vast majority of petrified wood was heavily fractured. My appreciation of specimens that were essentially perfect and unaltered with glue grew immensely. One day in the early nineties, while in Denver at a mall in conjunction with a kids’ soccer game, while my wife and daughters were clothes shopping, I stumbled upon a Nature Store. In the back was a cabinet with many short but deep drawers, filled with all sorts of mineral and fossil specimens. I looked through the offerings with interest, and practically suffered a coronary when I saw my first fossilized cone from Argentina. I didn’t know that plant fossils could be so perfect and amazing. No glue and no fractures and even the cells of the seeds in the cone were perfectly preserved. What I later learned to be an average Araucaria cone from Argentina was vastly superior in quality to any cone I had seen that was found in North America. Cones of any sort in Chinle and Morrison locations are remarkably rare. Even in Arizona, with millions of pounds of petrified wood, presumably mostly Araucaria which would have had cones, no cones are found (with rare exception). Within a week or two I’d tracked down the importer and was in his garage eight-hundred miles away, jubilantly searching through Argentina wood and flats of cones. Awesome. The importer and I became good friends. I spent the following decades seeking perfection in fossil wood. I went after it full steam ahead. I once arranged to meet a fossil dealer at the airport in Tucson to be the first to go through his material. Another time, I spent hours at the bottom of a hot shipping container in a Denver parking lot, the first to get to a dealer’s Argentine wood. I drove tens of thousands of miles and spent weeks at a time away from home in my quest. Although I already had a 24 inch Highland Park diamond rock saw, I bought a 14-inch saw with a thin blade just to cut Araucaria cones. In 1998 I started a publishing company to publish my first book, Petrified Wood. In 2004, I was admitted into the National Rockhound Hall of Fame based on my work with fossil wood. In 2005, my career as a prosecutor ended, as Colorado is the only state with term limits for District Attorneys. My first post-DA project was the completion of Ancient Forests, which I’d been working on for seven years in my spare time.