Dinosaur Auction Assailed for Offering "Illegal" Fossils

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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."

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