Rare letter by Dorset fossil hunter Mary Anning sells for more than £100,000 at auction

  • Watch Claire Manning's report.

An extremely rare letter sent and signed by Dorset's world-famous fossil collector Mary Anning has made more than £100,000 at auction.

The three-page letter, sent to palaeontologist William Buckland in February 1829 tells of her discoveries on the west Dorset coast including the skeleton of a plesiosaur, now thought to be part of the collection at the Natural History Museum in London.

Detail from Mary Anning's letter - you can see her autograph at the bottom. Credit: Sotheby's

The letter also refers to a box of specimens Mary Anning had sent to the expert, which included a number of 'coprolites' or fossilised poo.

The Jurassic Coast Trust and Lyme Regis Museum managed to raise more than £40,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to try to buy the letter but were outbid in the auction at Sotheby's of London on Tuesday 4 August 2020. It went to an anonymous private collector for £100,800, more than eight times its guide price of £8,000-£12,000.

Lucy Culkin, the CEO of the Jurassic Coast Trust says, "We are of course disappointed that the letter will not be in Mary’s home town and that perhaps it will not be as accessible to visitors as we would have liked, but hope the buyer may get in touch to talk to us about how we might work together for the benefit of future aspiring geologists and palaeontologists who visit the Jurassic Coast each year”.

The donations will be returned or used to extend the museums' collections.

Mary Anning and her brother discovered an ichthyosaur when she was only 11 years old. Credit: ITV News

Who was Mary Anning?

Gabriel Heaton of Sotheby's says "Mary Anning was the woman who has been described as the greatest fossil hunter ever known. Her ability to discover, identify and interpret the fossils that were exposed on the coastal rock faces of her native Dorset (the so-called “Jurassic Coast”) was so remarkable that it was sometimes claimed that she had gained preternatural abilities when she was struck by lightning as an infant.

"Her skills and intellect made Mary Anning a key figure in early 19th century science, one who played a central part in developing a new understanding of earth’s great antiquity and the wonderful range of life that inhabited the planet before the appearance of the human race."

Mary Anning and her dog Tray. Credit: Sotheby's

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799. Her parents had 10 children but only she and her brother Joseph survived to become adults. The lightning strike happened when she was 15 months old.

Mary's father was a cabinet maker who made extra money by selling fossils to tourists. When he died in 1810, the brother and sister continued to fossil hunt to support the family.

In 1811, when Mary was 12, they discovered the skull of an ichthyosaur.

In 1823, Mary discovered the first full plesiosaur skeleton. Her discoveries became evidence for the concept of extinction.

Mary died in 1847 without ever being recognised as a scientist because of her gender and poor background. She was well known, though, and it is thought she could be the inspiration for the tongue twister, "She sells sea shells on the sea shore".

In 2010, 163 years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

In 2021, the movie Ammonite is due to be released. It is filmed in Lyme Regis and is inspired by the life of Mary Anning, starring Kate Winslet as the fossil hunter extraordinaire.