Conversations With: A Bone Dealer

We dig into the niche world of fossil collecting
by Teo Ken-Hin
InterviewsApril 2, 2019
From now until 14 April, Chinatown will play host to a series of ancient specimens – and no, we’re not talking about the Chinese-chess-players-outside-Buddha-Tooth-Relic-temple variety. We’re talking about actual fossils and crystals, which will be on display at the pop up Set in Stone gallery. We spoke with its gallerist Cliff Hartono to find out, what’s the deal with all these bones?

JUNK : Ok, fossils. Why are they interesting?

CH: Without fossils, we probably would not have a story of evolution to tell. So my interest in fossils has to do with the fact that these species of flora and fauna are no longer with us, and yet we still can get a chance to know them.

It also probably has to do with the natural beauty and majesty of these things ‘as found’. How it takes years and years to create. Crystals are a natural phenomena that are similarly captivating. For example, when lit through, you can start to see flashes of rainbow colours from the inclusions deep within – there are really endless ways of looking at this one object.

JUNK : I see. Where does your particular interest come from?

Well, as a kid, my family had a small collection of fossils and that sparked an interest in me. That laid dormant until I moved to New York and London later in life and saw some truly amazing collections of fossils and crystals at natural history museums there that rekindled my interest, deep enough for me to leave my finance job and dive into this full-time.

JUNK : So you sell these things?

CH: Yes I sell, what you call …”these things”. I prefer to think of them as pieces.

JUNK : Crystals, is this like Fu Lu Shou complex? Down there got many people selling these types of things…and usually for luck right? Do you sell luck too?

CH: Funny you frame it that way. When I started out, I was mostly keen on fossils, but the last few years, I’ve found that crystals have started to have a growing audience within my client base. As far as the power that they have to influence, I’ve clients who have related anecdotes to me about how the timely purchase of a crystal has had some sort of life-changing effect on them.

I’ve not really thought much about it, but the more I see how they have influenced my client’s lives, I admit that I do get intrigued as well. It’s the reason why I feel that thematically, this exhibition is a journey from science to the mystical. Whatever the case, I acknowledge the meaning and value it has to my clients.

JUNK: And when you say crystal, you mean it’s like Swarovski is it? I have a friend who is very high-SES – their bedhead is quilted pink leather and studded with Swarovski crystals; very, very classy. One day I want to be like him – successful.

CH: Urm, no. Swarovski is actually man-made lead glass; what I deal with is naturally occurring. Like lead glass, there is a polishing and refining process to some of my pieces to get the best out of it aesthetically. But to be clear, I deal with naturally occurring crystals.

We have a crystal ball on show right now, fairly big at 31cm in diameter. Some visitors have commented that looking at and into it is like looking into clear, unmelted ice; a friend commented that he was looking for a whiskey glass big enough to fit it!

JUNK : That would make him some kind of “baller”, ahem. So, can I see the 4D number in the crystal ball, like an old gypsy fortune teller?

CH: No, or maybe you might? People see 4D numbers on the side of arowanas too, not that I have observed any.

JUNK : True or false: fossils are just dead animals trapped in stone?

CH: Well, yes and no. An animal did die, and over time – and I mean a long, long time – the organic matter has been replaced by minerals, petrifying it. Essentially what you are looking at is the trace of an animal, set in stone. You would be surprised how much detail gets captured; take the Jurassic Ichthyosaur we have on show, our “Big Boy” – never mind the vertebrae of the animal, much of the structure of the eye is also still intact. You can really take a magnifying glass to these things and be stunned.

JUNK : …And how old are these fossils?

CH: The youngest piece we have on display is the Giant Clam Shell at 200,000 years old, the oldest thing we have is the Jurassic Ichthyosaur at 182 million years old.

JUNK : 182 million? Wah? That is very, very long ago.

CH: Yes, when you think about it, it’s a bit hard to get your head around how old these things are.

JUNK : How do you find fossils? Luck? So finding fossil needs crystals for luck too, right?

CH: Yes. I’ve been to dig sites and have witnessed this firsthand. It is a slow, painstaking process. Generally, you will know where fossils are found in an area, and digging for them is really a delicate, layer by layer process. It takes ages. Finding one that is outstanding in its preservation and completeness is like hitting the jackpot. There is also a very specialised community of people who do this for a living.

JUNK : So tell us why your fossils are so special? Doesn’t Singapore also have them at museums?

CH: Yes there are. The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS is a good place to start. I’ve always encouraged everyone to go and have a look at all the natural history you can find. I have organised this show because a guiding principle throughout my career so far, is that I continue to search for the best of what can be found, whether in terms detail, or size or composition. And they have to be at least museum-quality.

At the right time, when I have an interesting collection of pieces on hand, I’m more than happy to put up a show to share them with anyone and everyone who would care to come to see them firsthand, especially out of curiosity. This is the 4th edition of me doing this.

JUNK : So, the work is in a gallery, a place where atas people go, but we want to know… is this art?

CH: I get this question a lot, and it think the answer more lies in the person looking at it. While art may have a more deliberate narrative, I would wager that a person looking at a piece of man-made art may also spend the same amount of time looking at a crystal, or a fragment of pyrite or copper ore. It’s where it takes your thoughts and imagination that really matters!

JUNK: Okay, thanks!


Set in Stone 2019
will be held at
23 Teo Hong Road
23 Mar to 14 Apr
Fri-Sun, 12-8pm.
Because nothing makes sense anymore, subscribe to JUNK.