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Vero bone with Ice Age etching is sold to an out-of-state trust

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of March 21, 2013)
Photo of James Kennedy searching for more fossils.

The ancient Vero resident who etched an image into a bone, inspired by the startling sight of a giant mammoth in the neighborhood, ought to be proud.

The artist’s work finally sold and it only took 13,000 years.  

Believed to be the oldest example of art in the Western hemisphere, the Vero discovery in 2009 of the Ice Age etching – similar in style to European cave drawings – caused a sensation in archaeological circles. The etching is now in the care of a West Coast antiquities trust.

The sale includes a confidentiality clause. James Kennedy, the amateur fossil hunter who found it, takes that very seriously and will not say where the bone is.

Ron Rennick Sr., an art dealer and real estate auctioneer who represented Kennedy in the sale, says Kennedy’s remuneration is nothing like the staggering figures bandied about early on.  “He didn’t get a ton of money, but he got enough to be moderately comfortable.”

Rennick and Kennedy say they hope the bone will end up in a museum.

Kennedy first noticed the fist-size etching four years ago when he was washing off fossils stashed for years under the kitchen sink of his mobile home.

With the help of longtime fossil-collector and attorney Gene Roddenberry, Kennedy went to Gainesville to see Barbara Purdy, a University of Florida archaeologist. That’s when the significance of his find began to sink in.

“Until then, I had no idea what I had,” says Kennedy.

Purdy took the bone on as a personal project, convincing Kennedy to allow the finest minds in the field to check it out.

But those minds are easily changed, as Kennedy says. “These scientists don’t mess around. They’re out to make sure their name stays good.

“You don’t just go out and find the treasure and it all just happens,” says Kennedy. “If you found the Holy Grail, it would take 500 years for anybody to believe it. Then God would come down and say, ‘Hey that’s my cup.  Give it back.”

Purdy appeared heartsick at news of the sale. “I looked in the dictionary and could find no suitable words to describe my feelings,” she said in an e-mail. “Sorrow may come the closest.”

“This interesting shard of Florida’s heritage now resides in California,” she says. “It’s a classical example of: The individual wins, the rest of us lose.”

Vero Beach 32963 broke the news of the bone in June 2009. Within days, the story was picked up by national and international media.

“Mammoth art in America? Or mammoth fraud?” asked a headline in National Geographic.

At that time, some thought such an important find belonged in a museum, not to with a private individual.

Focus simultaneously turned to a site near where the bone was found, that coincidentally was in discussion for further excavation. The spot between the Vero Beach Municipal Airport and the county administration building known as the Vero Man site had made headlines a century earlier. The site may be the most important archaeological site in North America, with the oldest human remains ever found alongside Ice Age animals, though it was hotly disputed when they were discovered in 1915.

The bone is from a large Ice Age mammal – a mastodon, mammoth or giant sloth. “We’re all guessing mammoth,” says Kennedy. “Who would carve a mammoth on a sloth bone? That doesn’t make any sense.”

From the start, scientists have worked backwards from the premise that the etching can’t be real.  So far, the bone has passed plenty of tests with names like scanning electron microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, and reflectance transformation imagery. All show nothing to indicate the drawing was recent.

Smithsonian scientists even came to Vero to drill for any remaining DNA. To their surprise, they found some, though analysis is still underway.

Between the wild speculation as to the bone’s worth and constant concerns for its safety, Kennedy has longed for a simpler life. “If I ever find another one, I’m damn sure not going to tell anyone,” he says.

Kennedy has hunted fossils since the age of 16, when he was fishing from an old cement tub in a canal at the Vero Man site, and he grabbed what he thought was a rock to tie to a rope for an anchor. It turned out to be a mammoth tooth. Since that moment, he says, he wakes up every morning with visions of where his next find may be.

Kennedy is a self-made expert in local archaeology. As droves of researchers descended on Vero, he found himself in demand. He has entertained world renowned scientists from as far away as England at the kitchen table of his new home near the former Dodgertown golf course.

There, protected by an array of security devices and a Magnum 57, he remains the caretaker of bucketfuls of finds. 

Rennick himself caught the fever, and has spent many weekends with Kennedy scouring muddy ditch banks.

Perhaps the most colorful adventure in the four-year odyssey was when Rennick traveled by train with Kennedy to the Smithsonian in Washington, bone in tow. Scientists made 11 casts of the bone. One is on display in the window of Rennick’s Auction Gallery on Royal Palm Pointe.

Meanwhile, Kennedy became increasingly anxious about the bone’s security. After much discussion with his friend and mentor Roddenberry, he entrusted the bone to Rennick.

In February 2010, buses ferried hundreds of school children and long lines formed for the public’s first glimpse of the bone at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. It was encased in glass atop a pedestal with security guards and Kennedy hovering nearby.

But after passing the looping historical videos and arriving at the elegant display, visitors scratched their heads, unable to divine the etching in the dim light. “People were walking out mad,” Kennedy says. “So I ran to the store and bought two flashlights.” The lights made all the difference, passed from guest to smiling guest.

Rennick and Kennedy talked of staging a worldwide internet auction of the bone to the dismay of scientists who feared that the specimen might disappear without a trace into the hands of a private collector, thwarting their efforts at further verification.

That never happened. The market for bones went soft after the economy collapsed. Rennick and Kennedy bided their time.

Meanwhile, rumors that Kennedy was at the brink of tremendous wealth began to make him miserable. He says people came out of the woodwork making false claims against him, even filing lawsuits.

There was pressure to sell. There was pressure not to sell, particularly from scientists who wanted to keep the bone for study.

“I got thousands of calls, thousands, from people making offers then I’d never hear from them again,” he says.

One serious offer came from the University of Florida, a reported $80,000. But it paled next to the others, and Kennedy said no.

About three months ago, a representative of the West Coast trust stepped up.

“James had his ups and downs over the years and he decided it was time to sell,” Rennick said.

Under the sale terms, he could not discuss the bone’s move from Vero.

With the bone gone, work continues on the Vero Man site.

Rennick is on the board of the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee. An excavation slated to begin this month had to be postponed until December due to more groundwater than anticipated.

“It looks to be more expensive to excavate than we thought,” says Susan Grandpierre, the committee’s president. “We have to wait for the dry season. But that’ll give us time to raise the extra money.”

Next month, Dr. James Adovasio, the head of Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, will speak at the Emerson Center on April 12.

The project, which has raised $100,000, has embarked on an awareness campaign with talks scheduled in Riomar, the Moorings and Sea Oaks.

As for Kennedy and his bone, “I hope he made a pile of money,” says Grandpierre. “But I hate to see it leave Indian River County.

“I don’t think enough people really believed in it,” she said, asked why no Vero investor came forward. “It’s kind of like a prophet in your own country.”

“If I had my way, I’d rather never have found it,” says Kennedy.  “I wish that bone had stayed under my sink. It’s been more pain, more problems, and more hassle than it has been good for me. It’s been good for a lot of other people, but it’s been nothing but trouble for me.”