[meteorite-list] Future of Meteorite Collecting Linked to Commercial Fossil Controversy
From: meteorites_at_space.com <meteorites_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:42:03 2004
On Mon, 22 January 2001, Robert Verish wrote:
> 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.
SRS> Bob, we see it the "handwriting on the wall" but does the rest of the meteorite collecting community see it. What is the solution? An association-- but there is no one with the courage or gumption to carry it through. Meteorites are not like rare fossils. You can't give the government half or a portion of a dino skeleton, or egg, and satisfy the demands of science. Meteorites-- they are different. One can satisfy the demands of science with a portion. And that can, if we form an association, lobby our legislators, have the laws that will be enacted allow for provisions that would not outlaw meteorite collecting or seriously curtail it. Too many agendas, and the powers to be will conquer our divided ranks. Steve Schoner
> ------------ 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#
> --------------- End of Appended Text -----------
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Received on Tue 23 Jan 2001 12:26:17 AM PST