[meteorite-list] Future of Meteorite Collecting Linked to Commercial Fossil Controversy

From: Robert Verish <bolidechaser_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:42:02 2004
Message-ID: <20010123013415.84987.qmail_at_web10402.mail.yahoo.com>

When you read this, if you replace the word "fossil"
with the word "meteorite", you will be able to see
what the future holds in store for the "hobby" of
meteorite collecting. -- Bob V.

------------ Appended Text ---------------

>From LA Times - Monday, January 22, 2001


Ancient Bone Sales Thrive in Capitalist Era
    Fossils: Auctioning of dinosaurs and other natural
history relics angers scientists.
 Woolly mammoth tusk fetches $32,000 Sunday.

 By USHA LEE MCFARLING, Times Science Writer

     SAN FRANCISCO--It took just 21 seconds, one bang
of a wooden mallet at the venerable Butterfields
auction house Sunday and "Reina," a
74-million-year-old diminutive leptoceratops had
reached its highest bid: $75,000.
     Although such transactions occur quietly,
surrounding them does not: The growing sales of
"natural history objects"-from trilobites to
meteorites to entire dinosaur skeletons--is stirring
up museums, universities and auction houses.
     Reina, the most controversial item offered, was
not sold Sunday because the $75,000 offered did not
top the owner's minimum bid of $120,000.
     But a Siberian woolly mammoth tusk sold for
nearly $32,000 and a small fossil turtle went for
$18,400 to the chagrin of UC Berkeley paleontologist
Kevin Padian, who argues that riches like Reina--one
of only two known slender horned faced
dinosaurs--belong in museums and not on the living
room floors of rich collectors.
     It hurts Padian just as much to see the smaller
fossils go, as dozens of them did Sunday.
"They'll be lost to science, to the public and to
education," said Padian. "And they're not renewable.
When they're gone, they're gone."
     The sale of fossils is big business, bringing in
about $40 million annually. Those auctioned Sunday
brought in $160,000.
     The charge that science is being robbed irritates
David Herskowitz, director of natural history for
California-based Butterfields, a leading purveyor of
such goods and the world's fourth largest auction
     "I have a lot of things that are extremely rare,
like that woolly mammoth horn," he said in an auction
preview room that included a nest of 17 raptor eggs, a
1,267.5-carat opal and two mating insects trapped in
"But I do not sell anything that's crucial to
      That point is debatable to scientists. Padian
contends that scholars and not profiteers should
decide what is crucial. But Herskowitz said he does
keep science in mind.
      Take Reina. Only 60% of her bones are real; the
rest of her skeleton has been filled in. Herskowitz
said the other leptoceratops that has been found is
70% complete and will be sold only to a museum. The
two dinosaurs were unearthed from private land in
northern Montana by a company called Canada Fossils.

      Shadowy Trade in Bones
      What also worries scientists is a shadowy and
sometimes illicit trade in bones: those who steal
fossils from the ground and sell them on the black
market. Thieves can ruin fossils, sites and years of
scientific work as they did in eastern Utah last
spring, destroying a massive and nearly complete
      A multi-agency federal task force called
Operation Rockfish has recovered more than $7 million
worth of stolen fossils--and discovered that most
fossil thieves are suspected felons. One thief was
arrested trying to swap a triceratops skull for
$60,000 in cocaine.
      Forgeries also are a problem, and seem to be on
the rise because of the growing private market for
      A notorious forgery was discovered last year
after it had been touted on National Geographic's
cover as the "missing link" between dinosaurs and
birds. The specimen turned out to be the clever work
of Chinese farmers who patched the tail of a dinosaur
onto the body of a fossil bird to increase value.
      Such forgeries, said Padian, are among the
damaging legacies of the commercial fossil trade. The
average Chinese villager "earns only a meager salary
by Western
standards," Padian wrote in a recent editorial. "The
lure of money from fossil dealers is difficult to
      A worse crime--and this is the rare item on
which Padian and Herskowitz agree--is committed by
those commercial fossil hunters who excavate things
without carefully recording their location, the exact
"death position" of the bones and other fossils
associated with the bones. That information may have
no direct market value, but it is priceless to
      "Professional collectors aren't interested in
that information," said Padian, a dinosaur expert
noted for his work on determining the origin of birds
and flight. Many commercial hunters refuse to disclose
exactly where bones were found for fear of competition
at their site.
      Although savvier fossil hunters are learning
that scientific information enhances fossil value,
Herskowitz acknowledges that there could be
      "In every industry there are bad guys," said
Herskowitz, who should know: The high-energy New
Yorker used to be in the gem business, trading
diamonds and other jewels in the former Soviet Union.
      In 1992, a speck in a piece of amber caught his
eye. Rather than rendering the stone worthless, the
speck turned out to be a trapped fly that sent the
value of the nugget spiraling from $6 to $300.
      Two years later, the movie "Jurassic Park"
opened, cementing America's love affair with dinosaurs
and exploding the market for insects trapped in amber.
"That's when I got really interested," said
      Paleontologists have long enjoyed a relationship
with amateur collectors. The backbones of most museum
fossil collections are former private collections.
      The deep rift seen today, said Padian, stems
from the advent of commercial collectors and the
growing commerce associated with fossils. Padian's
museum, the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology, will
no longer identify fossils for collectors. "We've
gotten very cynical," he said. "The first question is,
'What is it?' The second question is, 'What is it
worth?' "
      The debate now centers on who should be able to
collect America's fossils. It is a federal crime to
steal fossils from public lands. Academic dinosaur
hunters can dig up the bones from public land with
permits, but only if the bones are then placed in a
museum; all fossils remain the property of the U.S.
government. Digging up and selling fossils from
private land is legal.
      Some Western senators, including Tom Daschle, a
South Dakota Democrat, are looking for ways to loosen
restrictions on fossil hunting--something Padian and
the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology strongly
      The society would also like to see a ban on the
export of fossils dug up in the United States as a way
to ensure that any scientifically valuable
fossils--even if they come from private land--are
maintained in museums for study and public view.
      "We believe these are part of the whole
country's heritage," said Ted J. Vlamis, a Wichita,
Kan., businessman and president of the group Save
America's Fossils for Everyone.
      A 1995 poll commissioned by the Dinosaur Society
and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists found
that 61% opposed the sale of scientifically important
fossils and that 91% thought that museum or university
personnel should be the ones to dig up fossils.
      Commercial fossil hunters vehemently disagree,
and say the more people who collect fossils
responsibly, the more fossils there will be--for
science and for the marketplace.
      "Things are being lost to science because we
don't have enough people out there looking. There are
not enough degreed paleontologists or tax dollars . .
. to look at nearly a half-billion acres of public
lands, let alone private lands," said Marion Zenker,
marketing coordinator for the Black Hills Institute in
South Dakota, a leading commercial fossil excavator.
      Zenker, a plain-spoken former tractor-trailer
driver and mother of eight, said academic hunters "act
like the high priests of paleontology."
      Some of their brethren agree. Robert Bakker, the
Harvard and Yale trained paleontologist who helped
advance the idea that dinosaurs were warm blooded, has
said many of his colleagues promote a class system.
"We guys with PhDs think we have a God-given right to
dictate where and how specimens are collected" -
something Bakker said is not in the public interest.
      Zenker adds that scientific credentials should
not be the only entry into a fossil dig:
"The people who are in this field are here because
they love fossils."

      Digs by Private Parties
      Zenker's Black Hills Institute is the
organization that found Sue, the world's most famous
tyrannosaurus rex. And the world's most costly.
      Sue sold at a Sotheby's auction in 1997 for an
eye-popping $8.4 million--leading many to fear that
important dinosaur fossils would remain out of the
reach of cash-strapped museums. Sue's story ended
happily; corporate benefactors sponsored her donation
to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.
      Fears of dinosaur price inflation have not
materialized. Sue, a celebrity after a vicious court
battle over her ownership, may have been a one-time
deal. Another T-rex fizzled in two Internet auctions
last year and was withdrawn from sale.
      Compared to the spiraling prices of the art
world, dinosaurs have remained relatively affordable.
"Natural history is cheap," said Herskowitz.
      While it is reported that Nicolas Cage and Bill
Gates are fossil collectors, most of those attending
Sunday's auction keep much lower profiles. One
customer was Dennis Widman, a San Jose orthodontist
who has loved dinosaurs since he was a child in
      "There's so much beauty in it," he said. "Every
species is an art form."
      Although he likes to keep his private clients
satisfied, Herskowitz is happiest when his specimens
wind up in museums. Last year, an extremely valuable
fossil, the first gliding reptile Icarosaurus
siefkeri, was taken from the American Museum of
Natural History by its discoverer, Alfred Siefker, and
put up for sale to cover stroke-related medical
      When a retired Bay Area developer and bird lover
named Dick Spight stepped in to buy the fossil for
$167,500, Padian persuaded him to donate the fossil
back to the museum, where it now resides--making
everyone happy.
      As for Reina's fate? She may well end up on the
auction block again. Or she could find a home in a
museum--if a donor can be found to pony up the
$100,000 that would be needed to purchase her.
      After all, said Herskowitz, "we're looking for
proper homes for all these specimens."

   Search the archives of the Los Angeles Times for
similar stories about: Fossils, Auctions, Dinosaurs,
Scientists, Black Markets.
 You will not be charged to look for stories, only to
retrieve one.
        Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
        Click for permission to reprint (PRC#
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Received on Mon 22 Jan 2001 08:34:15 PM PST

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