Dinosaurs and Other Fossils Sound at Auctions – The Pros and Cons

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Fossils and Ancient Artefacts Under the Gavel

And so the dust sheets are drawn over those lots that did not reach their reserve price and the auctioneer’s gavel is put away in readiness for the next time and we in the scientific community all breathe a huge sigh of relief. Over the last few years there has been an increasing number of rare, museum quality fossils coming up for auction at major auction houses all over the globe. Sad to say, but recently the first, large-scale auction of a dinosaur skeleton took place in the UK. “Misty” a seventeen metre long, nearly complete Diplodocus fossil excavated from Wyoming went under the hammer.

She (palaeontologists have speculated that it was a female), fetched £400,000 GBP ($640,000 USD). The fossil skeleton was purchased by an unnamed and unknown buyer.

Not the First Dinosaur Sale in Europe

The auction house responsible for the sale, which also included rare ammonites, Pleistocene aged fossil specimens and a partial Ichthyosaurus excavated from Dorset’s Jurassic coast, claimed that this was the first sale of its kind in Europe. Like so much of the pre-auction blurb associated with such sales this was incorrect. There have been other auctions of extensive fossil material held in Europe, a Triceratops mounted skeleton up for sale in Paris a few years ago springs to mind. One thing that can be said with certainly, this sale may not have been the first, but it will most certainly not be the last.

Fossils Attract Buyers

Fossils and other ancient artefacts have become highly sort after by collectors and private individuals. Many corporations and businesses have also made purchases. It seems that a fossil specimen, especially a dinosaur is rapidly becoming a “must have” for the elite. Just ask the likes of “A listers” Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom have been involved with high-profile purchases of fossil material.

“Duelling Dinosaurs of Montana”

With a recent pair of dinosaurs the so-called “Duelling Dinosaurs of Montana”, recently put up for sale in New York with a reserve price around the $5 million USD mark, the purchasing of dinosaur fossils is becoming the reserve of the super wealthy. The Montana specimen consists of a Theropod (meat-eater) potentially a Nanotyrannus, preserved in fatal combat with a likely new species of horned dinosaur. This is a very significant fossil, one that did not sell on the day of its auction, as the reserve price was not reached. However, the fate of this remarkable fossil hangs in the balance and a number of palaeontologists have expressed the concern that such material if procured by a private individual or institution may be lost to scientific study for ever.

The Problem with Fossils Sold at Auction

Specimens which are sold at auction may not be put on public display. This denies access to such fossils for the those people who would want to visit a museum to see such attractions, but few museums can afford the extraordinary sums of money that such fossils now fetch. In addition, from an academic perspective, one of the principles of scientific enquiry is open access to specimens to allow other researchers to test the theories and assumptions made by others. If fossils are not available to them, then the ability to study them under one of the guiding principles of science is lost.

The “Black Market” in Fossil Material

The high prices paid for such specimens, after all, a Tyrannosaurus rex called Sue (also believed to female, like Misty), was sold at Sotheby’s on October 27th 1997 for $8.36 million USD, is fuelling a fossil “black market”. Recently, there have been court cases brought in the United States that relate to the illegal smuggling of fossil material. Sadly, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg as there are a number of suspected fossil smuggling cases being investigated at the moment. One can see the attraction, a humble farmer working his land, stumbles across a strange rock that a local dealer will pay many times his monthly income to possess. The rock changes hands a number of times until that wealthy foreign buyer takes possession.

A number of governments have attempted to bring in legislation to curb such practices but it is very difficult to police fossil movement or indeed to prove provenance of any fossil material that comes to light.

The Role of Commercial Fossil Dealers

Whilst the black market for these rare artefacts is deplored by many people it is worth bearing in mind the important function that many fossil dealers and commercial fossil hunters perform. Most fossils are rocks, when exposed on the surface these rocks are subject to weathering and erosion, just like any other rock. Abrasion processes, freeze-thaw, attrition all damage fossils and eventually will destroy them. Museums and research institutes do not have the manpower to continually explore fossil sites, but thanks to the commercial fossil dealers many specimens that would have been lost forever are found, excavated and preserved.

If it wasn’t for the efforts of dealers, many of which possess a remarkable knowledge and great skill a number of important specimens would have been lost to science forever.

Striking a Balance

With museums and other facilities co-operating very closely with governments and other bodies to clamp down on illegal fossil smuggling there is hope. A degree of realism needs to descend on the science of palaeontology, fossil auctions are going to be a fact of life from now on, but perhaps new rules on selling could be implemented such as once a specimen is sold the option remains open to permit fossils to be studied by scientists should the need arise. After all, for the wealthy, private collector there are tremendous public relation gains to be made. Perhaps a licensing or tracking system on major fossils could be implemented. This would permit a database of material held outside museums to be properly catalogued and documented with movement of material recorded. These measures in conjunction with education of locals when it comes to finding fossils, plus strong deterrents in the form of tougher punishments for the smugglers might give extinct animals such as the dinosaurs brighter future. Far better if we stuck to purchasing dinosaur models instead.

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