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."

Smuggled Bones?

At issue is a small percentage of fossils slated for auction today that come from nations like China, Mongolia, and Argentina. Norell and other prominent paleontologists note that, while the sale and import of the fossils is legal in the U.S., the fossils were illegally smuggled from their countries of origin.

Hans-Dieter Sues is an associate director for research and collections at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Sues said he was taken aback by some of the lots he saw illustrated in Guernsey's auction catalog.

"I was just dumbfounded when I saw some fantastic specimens from areas where they cannot be legally collected and exported without special permission—like China and Mongolia," said Sues, who also serves on the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "In some cases these examples were better than any I'd seen that had been legally collected."

Such specimens include a Conchoraptor skeleton from the Cretaceous period. Sues called it "the nicest skeleton of this animal that I've ever seen."

"Now they are in danger of disappearing into private hands forever," Sues said. "Somebody in China must benefit from this, or it wouldn't get out of the country."

Xu Xing, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, says fossils can be illegally obtained in his country. "As far as I know, there are some black markets in China," Xu wrote to National Geographic News via e-mail.

"The price in oversea[s] markets is much higher than domestically," Xu wrote. "This encourages lots of farmers and dealers to become involved in digging and selling fossils. The Chinese government tried to close these markets, but since the profit is high, there are still people illegally doing this."

Earlier this month Australian federal police, working at the request of Chinese authorities, seized several thousand fossils that had been illegally smuggled from China. The fossils have been returned home.

Xu notes that, except for exhibitions or scientific exchanges, it is against the law to export vertebrate fossils—fossils of animals with backbones—from China. The scientist said that any vertebrate fossils from China falling outside those categories have been smuggled.

Xu said that auction houses selling ancient animal fossils from China "should realize that they are auctioning something definitely illegal."

Fossil Provenance

"I think auction houses tend to be a bit lax on some of these things," Sues, the Smithsonian paleontologist, said. "Most have no great experience in fossils and might not even know what's required."

Norell, of the American Museum of Natural History, goes further. Arguing that auction houses know better than to sell artworks of questionable provenance. The scientist says a similar burden applies to dinosaur fossils.

"We're sort of beyond the stage of 'Don't ask, don't tell' kind of stuff. You need a chain of legal possession," Norell said.

Ettinger, the Guernsey's president, says that in some instances fossils in today's auction from countries with current export bans left the countries in question years ago. Ettinger says that all fossils up for bid are supported by appropriate paperwork.

But some paleontologists insist that such documentation is unlikely to be authentic.

"There's a lot of stuff [for sale] that's totally legit, very nice specimens found on private land in the U.S.," Norell said. "But there hasn't been a single fossil legally taken out of Argentina, for example, in maybe 75 years."

Norell noted that today's auction includes several fossils from Argentina, including dinosaur eggs.

Sues, the Smithsonian fossil curator, says there is little chance museums will even be in the bidding for any of the pieces he believes are of questionable origin.

"In this case we couldn't touch it, because we wouldn't have export permits from the major authorities, like the Chinese Academy of Sciences," he said.

Ettinger said he respects the concerns of science but disagrees with some assertions by researchers. "The notion that thousands are trampling the planet in search of these [fossils] because they could appear at auction—I don't think that is accurate," he said.

Ettinger said he was alerted in recent days to some concerns surrounding some internationally sourced auction items and corresponded with parties to constructively address any concerns.

"We … support science and efforts to do the right thing," he said.

Norell argues the U.S. should recognize the laws of nations that ban the export of fossils. "It's legal [to sell them] because we don't recognize these laws," Norell said. "But it's a global society and for this to be happening is ridiculous."

Noting that the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is a world organization, Sues said, "We're quite shocked that this is happening, and we are very concerned."

For more news on dinosaurs, scroll down

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.