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He Was a Real Indiana Jones

He Was a Real Indiana Jones

By Billy Cox, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

SARASOTA – “Indiana Jones” creator George Lucas has long insisted his inspiration for Harrison Ford’s whip-cracking adventurer were the generic B-movie swashbucklers of the 1950s. But that’s never stopped those familiar with the exploits of Roy Chapman Andrews from asking: Was the famed American paleontologist the “real” Indiana Jones?

Either way, when a Sarasota entrepreneur got a lead on a chance to purchase a huge chunk of Andrews’ exotic estate last year, he jumped at it. And on Saturday, at Sarasota Estate Auction, you can take some of that history home with you if the price is right.

“Certainly it’s a first in my lifetime, to acquire items of this provenance,” says Andrew Ford, who owns Sarasota Estate Auction with his wife Elizabeth. “And it’s unique to have Andrews’ collection here in Sarasota.

“I don’t know if he carried a bullwhip, but he carried a gun and he wore a hat like Indiana Jones.”

Renowned for hair-raising encounters with vipers, sandstorms, bandits and hostile government soldiers during his fossil-hunting excursions into Mongolia, Andrews made history in 1923 when he became the first to discover a nest of dinosaur eggs. It belonged to a previously unknown Cretaceous species that would be named oviraptor. Yet another prehistoric creature — the Eocene carnivore Andrewsarchus — was named for the Wisconsin native.

In 1935, Andrews was appointed director of the American Museum of Natural History, where he served before retiring in 1942. Andrews died in California in 1960.

Although a raptor tooth, along with a megalodon tooth embedded in sediment, will be included on Saturday’s auction block, the bulk of the collectibles for sale are Asian antiquities, the result of Andrews’ voracious yen for eastern culture.

Pottery, screens, porcelain, scrolls — some three dozen items from the celebrated paleontologist’s eclectic inventory will be up for grabs. The oldest appears to be an exquisitely detailed polychrome sculpture from the Song Dynasty, which ruled China from the 10th through the 13th centuries.

Larger than life

The auction centerpiece is an ornate Chinese chest cited by a 1933 House Beautiful magazine article as a relic from the Ming Dynasty. That would make it roughly 500 years old. However, noting the cloisonne style reflected on its door mounts, analysts from Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses suggest the chest was likely produced in the late 17th or early 18th centuries.

The chest’s most distinguishing characteristics, notes Ford, are the five-toed dragon designs featured in the artwork. “Five-toed dragons were exclusive to the Imperial Emperor,” he says. “So we think this must have come from the Qing Dynasty,” which ruled from 1644-1911. “The design is extremely complex, and given its age, which we think is about 300 years old, this one is about as good as it gets.”

Bidding on the chest will open at $20,000.

A Sarasota art and antiques dealer for 22 years — now with three locations — Ford got a heads-up on the availability of the Andrews estate last summer. A California collector had warehoused the collection near Andrews’ old home in Carmel and wanted to unload. Ford spent “well into six figures” to acquire and haul the property cross-country to Sarasota.

Establishing the provenance of the explorer’s possessions was complicated by the fact that artifacts belonging to Andrews’ late son were also in the storage mix, as well as other unrelated Asian treasures.

“I’ve tried to be really cautious with this material,” says Ford. But with the help of extensive photo IDs and bibliographies, Ford was able to directly link more than 100 antiques to the man who, with his fedora, bush-country khakis and sidearm at the ready, certainly fit the mold of a two-fisted matinee daredevil.

“We have a letter from LucasFilm officially denying Indiana Jones was based on Andrews or any one character,” says Bill Green, a member of the Roy Chapman Andrews Society and director of the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Andrews’ alma mater, Benoit College in Wisconsin. “But if you grew up in the ’40s or ’50s, you knew him real well from the magazines or the newsreels or the books he’d written.”

Among Andrews’ many legacies, says Green, was his ability to coordinate multidisciplinary scientists — botanists, paleontologists, archaeologists, zoologists — into a single project. “Scientists from multiple fields normally didn’t work together back then.”

Additionally, “Authorities and academics in Mongolia are happy to work with Andrews’ successors at the American Museum of Natural History,” says Green. “He built an enduring bridge.”

Buyers worldwide

It was a bridge financed with Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan money, and crafted upon the spectacle of Dodge vehicles and camel caravans, sprawling across deserts barren of facilities. Andrews’ well-oiled pipeline to Central Asia closed in 1930, with the rise of totalitarianism and the ensuing chaos of war.

But for nearly a decade, Andrews’ exploits in the east sounded like grist for pulp fiction. The Russians thought he was a spy. Upon selling a dinosaur egg for $5,000 to keep an expedition going, China accused him of plundering Mongolia’s resources.

A sandstorm once tore the top off his pajamas, stinging grain lashed his back bloody, and the tempest scattered the remains of his tent camp across a half-mile spread.

One morning, his camp awoke to discover that freezing temperatures had driven uncounted numbers of desert snakes into caps, gun cases, duffel bags, and blankets. Andrews and crew fled the area after killing at least 47.

Confronted by horseback bandits, Andrews and his caravan gunned it through at least one attempted ambush and fired upon the pirates. One of his trucks was fitted with a mounted machine-gun. “Bullets began spattering around us like hailstones,” Andrews wrote after being challenged by Chinese troops outside Peking in 1926. “They opened fire with a machine gun but it was aimed too low . . .”

“I don’t think he broke any laws,” says Green. “He was pretty observant of local customs. But in general, I’d say he did the minimum necessary to get permits from local authorities. I think he probably got a lot of opportunities to add to his personal (antiquities) collection while he was waiting for his permits to come through.”

Ford says a global clientele will likely be tuning into Saturday’s auction, which will also showcase Asian antiques above and beyond the Andrews collection. A video screen will display real-time remote Internet bids at Sarasota Estate Auction’s 7,000 square-foot display room, which can accommodate 100 visitors.

“At our last auction,” says Ford, who will retain some of the Andrews collection for future dates, “we had buyers from 17 different countries.”