The Biscayne Times

Dec 15th
Lions and Tigers and Bears PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wendy Doscher-Smith - BT Contributor, Photos by Silvia Ros   
October 2012

There is no other store quite like Art By God, and no other man quite like its owner

MCover1Bost of you reading this have, at one time or another, driven along the 3700 block of Biscayne Boulevard, just north of I-195. Chances are you’ve noticed the one-story white building on the east side of the street, the one whose exterior is decorated with silhouettes of dinosaurs.

Along the sidewalk in front of the building’s large windows you may also have noticed a very large bear rearing up its hind legs. Next to it is a pair of marble lions, each weighing two and a half tons, and a ten-foot-tall bull carved from a tree trunk. Sometimes these characters change, but such intriguing displays always beckon.

If you haven’t yielded to your curiosity, pulled into the building’s adjacent parking lot, and walked in the front door -- well, you have a treat in store.

This is Art By God, a retail business with an astonishing inventory of fossils, gemstones, shells, mounted insects, feathers, wood carvings, stone pottery, ethnic collectibles, pelts, and taxidermy. For browsers wandering through its Wildlife Gallery or Rock and Fossil Gallery, it can easily double as a natural history museum with free admission. In fact, museums are among Art By God’s clients.

Owner Gene Harris, a self-taught fossil collector, opened his first store in 1982 in what was then the Loehmann’s Plaza shopping center in Kendall. Originally he named the business Harris’s Art and Collectibles, but soon after the store’s opening, an attorney came in and bought a fossilized, extinct marine mollusk called an ammonite (from which the nautilus evolved) for his office.

When he contacted the store to say he couldn’t locate the artist’s signature, Harris replied, “God forgot to sign it.” Thus the name Art By God was born.

That store eventually closed, but in 1987 Harris opened in a new location, downtown Miami’s new Bayside Marketplace. In 1992 he opened the much larger Biscayne Boulevard store. There are fewer large-scale pieces in the Bayside Marketplace store, though you can view a full-size, fossilized cave bear in the display window. That store, says Harris, is stocked more for impulse tourist purchases.

Harris also owns an Art By God showroom in Laredo, Texas, established in 1990 and still operating. Earlier still, he had a store in Tucson, Arizona. He also has a thriving online wholesale business, primarily servicing catalogues and other retailers. Soon, Harris says, he’ll have an online retail store as well.

Cover2Today the brick-and-mortar Art By God is Miami’s best-kept secret for those wanting to stroll through rare natural objects and exotic manmade wares, or to gain some insight into natural history, evolutionary processes, bones, fossils, rocks, and gemstones.

Harris, an intrepid explorer, has traveled to more than 120 countries during his decades of treasure hunting, and his collection is sufficiently varied to fill several types of shops, ranging from new-age boutiques (crystals in all shapes, hues, and sizes) and furniture stores (look for elk antler chandeliers, chairs seemingly made entirely from antlers, dyed cowhide chairs, and other carved pieces) to museum-style gift shops.

A baby crinoid, a sea animal that resembles a small fern but whose tendrils are actually feeding arms, is one of his prized possessions. He found the fossil, which is at least 150 million years old, in Bolivia.

Looking for a gift that isn’t made of plastic or stenciled with a monogram? A gift for that person who has everything? Art By God won’t disappoint. How about a pterodactyl juvenile, a small species of pterodactyl? Art By God has one of just two known complete pterodactyl juvenile skeletons in the world, on sale for $182,000. You can also find a large slab of one of the nation’s oldest fossils: a two

Cover3The showroom offers less expensive items as well, ranging from $3 raccoon penis bones (and a few walrus penis bones) to gemstone pendants, ornate knives and wood carvings, strands of stone beads, beetle wing and butterfly wing earrings, small skulls, fossilized fish, and insects in resin.

Larger pieces include the fossilized skull of a Mesohippus, a three-toed horse that lived some 30 million years ago ($8650); skeleton of a Platecarpus, an extinct aquatic lizard that swam about 80 million years ago ($160,000); and vertebrae from a Catasaurus, or duckbilled dinosaur, that lived some 80 million years ago ($2850).

While browsing, don’t miss the “Wall of Ass,” which features the rear ends of various stuffed mammals, including a white-tailed deer and a goat.

Fossils of the Palaeolama, an animal that resembled the horse and the camel (both of which originate from the same family, Camelid), are found in highest concentration in central Florida, says Harris, who once had a Palaeolama that a colleague found while they were fossil hunting near Arcadia. He sold the fossil to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 1992. (Harris also owns two pet llamas who meet him every day when he returns to his South Dade home, awaiting their treat, usually bread.)

This past August, he sold a 12-foot mammoth tusk for $20,000. He also once sold a stuffed Barbary lion for $28,000. Barbary lions have been extinct since the 1920s.

Cover4Just inside the entrance of the Biscayne Boulevard store, visitors encounter a 5000-pound jade statue that took its sculptor 18 months to complete. Harris found it in China in 1998 on his yearly visit looking for importable items.

Deeper in the store, you can wander past cases of minerals, shiny and dull, raw and polished, and common and rare. Cassiterite, for example, a smoky, brownish-gray gemstone with transparent crystals, is rarely found weighing more than one pound, Harris notes. Small pieces, weighed in ounces, sell for hundreds of dollars. He once owned a piece that weighed five pounds and sold it for more than $8000.

Likewise, the Bayside Marketplace store has an amethyst “cathedral” (a cut geode with crystal interior) priced at more than $20,000. Both showrooms also offer many specimens for far less.

Most of the fossils Harris sells are from the United States, specifically from Kansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida. Crinoids, those small sea animals resembling ferns, are plentiful in Indiana. Utah is reliable supplier of coprolite, or dinosaur dung. He brings back petrified wood from California and Oregon. Generally in the United States, Harris explains, if you have fossils on your property, they belong to you. In Florida, however, the state retains the right to designate “archaeological landmarks” on privately owned land. Such a designation imposes a layer of legal protection on archaeological sites.

Harris, now 74 years old, recalls that he began collecting fossils and arrowheads in his hometown of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, when he was just seven. Arrowheads were fairly easy to find, he says, and he scouted out nearby woods and riverbanks for them.

Cover5He quit school at age 13 because, he says, he always had trouble with phonetics. The truant officer in Broken Bow tried to force him attend each year, and Harris would comply, but only for the first two weeks. Finally the truant officer gave up.

The boy was intelligent -- while still a teen he began working for a surveyor -- but the formal school setting and his phonetics issues made it untenable.

At 18 he entered the U.S. Marine Corps and continued his work in surveying. One of the Corps engineers took him under his wing, Harris recalls, and helped him with his reading skills. Harris took it seriously, reading as much as he could on anthropology, animal life, and husbandry.

When he left the Marine Corps, Harris wound up back in Oklahoma and attended Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, paying tuition out of his earnings as a freelance city surveyor. This time school seemed a good fit. Each time he took a new class, he became fascinated with the topic and said to himself, “Oh boy, this is it!”

Among other subjects, he took numerous art classes and ultimately earned 164 college credits, more than enough to graduate. But he still couldn’t pass freshman English and left school without a degree. Harris now believes he was suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia.

Cover6At age 24, he became a registered surveyor and moved to Guyana for a job with the U.S. State Department. He stayed there for about a year. Next was a job with the World Bank, in 1972. He was based in Brazil and worked as an inspector of “gas gathering systems.” The next year he did similar work in Bolivia. That’s where he met the woman he would marry, Gisela.

The two wed in 1973, and the following year his passion for fossil hunting seems to have reignited. He recalls that he typically spent 15 minutes at his desk writing survey reports, then he’d go out in search of fossils. “I used to carry rocks and frogs and arrowheads in my pocket,” he says of his adolescent days. “I never grew up.”

It was also during this time that Harris began to study minerals and gemstones, including their histories and mystical properties. This new pursuit eventually led him to become a certified gemologist with the Gemological Institute of America.

When his Bolivian contract expired in 1974, Harris and Gisela moved to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where he opened his first fossil-and-art store, in 1975. It remained in operation until 1981, when he and his wife decided to move to Miami, in part because of its proximity to her family and property in Bolivia, and in part because he loves the warm Miami weather.

Cover7In many ways, his motives for founding and operating Art By God are the same as his childhood motives for collecting fossils: He just likes to do it. Polite, curious, somewhat reserved, Harris doesn’t appear to be as interested in making a name for himself as enjoying what he loves. Yet he is well known within the industry and has cultivated many business relationships and partnerships that have also morphed into friendships. When the BT asked a number of people who know Harris for different reasons, they uniformly described him as a dedicated businessman and kind mentor who had helped them get started in their own businesses. Take, for example, Nancy Smith, owner of Necromance in Los Angeles, which stocks oddities and rarities, many of which are tinged with the macabre. Smith is a client of Harris’s, ordering taxidermy items, bones, and mounted butterflies, tarantulas, bats, and animal skulls. Most recently she ordered 30 goat skulls.

Harris, she says, was one of the first dealers on the scene. “If it weren’t for Gene’s business, I probably would not have started my business,” she says. “Gene used to have a place in Tucson, and I called it my natural history grocery store because I would literally push a grocery store cart around the store [collecting objects to sell].”

Alan Detrich is another fossil hunter since childhood and a longtime friend who lives in Kansas. Detrich was involved in the oil and gas industry and remembers that he was down on his luck after the oil crash of the mid-1980s. He credits Harris with helping him make his start in the fossil-dealing world.

Cover8Harris bought Detrich’s first fossil for $4500 in a trade that included the skull of a mosasaur, a marine reptile resembling a swimming lizard that lived 140 million years ago; a fossilized fish from Brazil; and the fossil of a mesosaurus, another reptile.

Then Harris purchased two more mosasaur fossils from Detrich, who had been waiting for an offer from a Japanese museum. The museum buyers hesitated but Harris did not. He later resold the fossils to the same museum.

Detrich became best known perhaps for his 1992 discovery with his brother in South Dakota of a nearly complete female Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, dubbed Samson, which he went on to sell for millions of dollars through the auction house Bonhams & Butterfields.

Detrich is also well known in Kansas for his advocacy of “intelligent design” and his opposition to teaching evolution in public schools. Somehow he balances his love of ancient fossils and his belief that life on Earth began relatively recently. “Gene is the hardest-working man in the natural history world,” says Detrich. “Gene is the James Brown and the Godfather of the fossil world. He takes care of us.”

Ron Magill, wildlife expert and communications director at Zoo Miami, is another longtime friend. “Gene knows so much,” says Magill, “and he taught me a lot about bones and the different types of fossil record. He is an incredible explorer and adventurer who is fascinated with wilderness and fossils. He’s like Indiana Jones without the hair.”

Cove9Though Harris has a great presence in the store, he does not run Art By God alone. His daughter, Ingrid Antezana, manages the office side of the business and has worked with her father since she was 12 years old. “He loves what he does from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed,” Antezana says. However, Antezana didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps as a fossil hunter or minerals collector. “There is so much to learn,” she says, “and I never focused on one theme.”

Harris must of course keep current with all the rules and regulations of the business in his dealings with dead animals. There are many, and they are always changing. Two are certain, though: No endangered species can be exported or sold across state lines, and all nearly endangered species are highly protected.

A hunter, for example, can bring back an elephant trophy and have it taxidermied in the U.S., according to the US 1988 Elephant Conservation Act, which asserts, “There is no evidence that sport hunting is part of the poaching that contributes to the illegal trade in African elephant ivory.” But once back in the U.S., nobody may sell a stuffed elephant or its ivory. (Antique ivory or pieces obtained prior to 1988 can be sold.)

Elephants are not the only protected animals. There are also numerous federal laws protecting a range of animals, from migratory birds to marine mammals.

Cover10“We stay away from any purchase or selling of any endangered species or mammal, or any elephant protected by the Elephant Conservation Act,” Harris stresses.

Harris adds that he isn’t a hunter, nor is he particularly fond of animal parts, such as hides and taxidermy. “The only thing I kill is time,” he jokes. Still, there are a lot of taxidermied heads in Art By God, and you can almost feel their eyes follow you around the store. All of these he acquired from hunters’ collections and from estate sales. And although his real love is fossils, he says, he does appreciate the sculptural beauty of taxidermy.

“The sculpture of nature is astounding, and that is the reason we sell it,” he says. “We sell them as art. It’s not that we’re out harvesting things out of the field to take into the store and sell.”

Actually, he says, he hopes to educate his customers as well. As such, there are educational posters and $12 rock beginner’s kits for children that sit in the same room as a skeleton of a xenorophid, or ancient whale, which sells for $182,000.

“We sell for education and for art’s sake,” says Harris. “When you see something that is beautiful here, it’s not only beautiful, but educational as well, if you look into it.”

He pauses, as if considering his industry anew, and says, “It’s a weird business, isn’t it?”


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