Dinosaur Auction Assailed for Offering "Illegal" Fossils

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 24, 2004

Triceratops horns, T. rex teeth, dinosaur eggs, and a woolly mammoth skeleton go on the auction block today at New York City's Park Avenue Armory. The items are among 300 lots of dinosaur and other fossils slated for sale by Guernsey's, the New York auction house.

While the event is bound to make many collectors happy, the auction has also spotlighted debate about the private ownership and sale of scientifically significant fossils and focused attention on international laws that govern the export of dinosaur fossils.

Some paleontologists say certain items up for auction belong in a museum. Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's, says he understands that argument and has worked to address those concerns. "From day one we made every effort we knew to reach out to museums," Ettinger said, noting that Guernsey's has convinced virtually all of its consigners to allow museums extra time to pay, in the event that they make winning bids.

The extra time—up to a year or two—could help interested museums to purchase fossils. Cash-strapped museums often rely on private donors to fund the acquisition of expensive pieces.

Many fossils in today's auction are valued at tens of thousands of dollars. What prices the most outstanding pieces will fetch are anyone's guess. High costs are likely to be a serious challenge for most educational institutions.

In 1997 Sotheby's auctioned a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil skeleton nicknamed "Sue" for over 8 million dollars (U.S.). At the time, the sale triggered fears that museums would be entirely priced out of the fossil market. But nervous museum staffs breathed a bit easier when Sue ended up at Chicago's Field Museum, thanks to contributions by corporate donors.

Legal Market

In the United States and many other countries, fossil specimens collected on private land become the property of the landowner. Trade in these fossils is entirely legal. While many academics and institutions oppose fossil trade in any form, others take a different stance.

"I don't have a problem with people who are legitimate fossil dealers," said Mark Norell, chair of the division of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"I have a great relationship with some of the commercial dealers. There are many reasons why people would want to own fossils. Science doesn't have an exclusive right to them, and if [a fossil is] found on private land, it's yours to do with what you want," he said.

But Norell says he is opposed to all fossil trade in which people "openly flaunt the laws of other countries."

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