Psst … Hey, Buddy, You Wanna Buy a Dinosaur?

The state of the universe.
Jan. 9 2013 4:45 AM

The Million-Dollar Dinosaur Scandal

Meet the crooks, smugglers, and counterfeiters who run the most brazen fossil scams.

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No one benefits from the sale of fossils except the dealer. The bylaws of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology hold its members to a professional standard: “The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into or keeps them within a public trust.” Even then, many professional paleontologists feel unsettled by high-profile sales that inspire unethical collectors to obtain and sell off important fossils. The controversial, overhyped fossil primate fossil Darwinius—known to the public as “Ida” and presented at the time as The Link to our primate ancestry—was sold to the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway for a reported $750,000. Prehistoric primate expert Elwyn Simons and other paleontologists explained in Nature that “such objectionable pricing and publicity can only increase the difficulty of scientific collecting by encouraging the commercial exploitation of sites and the disappearance of fossils into private collections … We strongly believe the fossils should not have any commercial value.”  

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Natural History Museum engineer Martin Kirkby examines an animatronic Tarbosaurus dinosaur model for a 2011 exhibition in London, England

Photograph by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

I understand the urge to have a dinosaur to call your own. I’ve got one myself: a skull of the long-necked, stout Jurassic sauropod Apatosaurus. But mine is a cast, which I found at the estate sale of the late Utah paleontologist James Madsen, Jr. Such alternatives let dinosaur fans have a piece of prehistory without depriving science. Indeed, reconstruction exports like Robert Gaston create and sell beautiful, lightweight casts of scientifically accurate dinosaur skeletons that are easier to mount and less expensive than real fossils.* Museums rely on casts for their own displays, after all, and museum-quality reproductions should satisfy the need of anyone who loves dinosaurs and the science of paleontology.

When I initially objected to the Tarbosaurus auction back in May, many readers responded that museums should fend for themselves. This argument ignores the perilous state of many museums and fundamentally misunderstands how modern paleontology is done. What is happening to the home of the $8 million T. rex named Sue is a sad example of why museums can’t, and shouldn’t, pay through the nose for questionable dinosaurs.

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Sue had a twisted backstory of her own, with commercial paleontologists from the Black Hills Institute, landowner Maurice Williams, and even the federal government disputing ownership. Ultimately, after drawn-out legal disputes, Williams was granted ownership of the dinosaur, and he put it up for auction before Sotheby’s auction house. With the help of deals made with Disney, McDonald’s, and other sources, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History acquired the dinosaur. As the institution recently made clear, though, they’re no longer in any state to purchase fossils.

The Field Museum is so strapped for cash that administrators are threatening to scrap various branches of scientific research. They plan to save the museum by cutting its heart out—a museum is not really a museum without responsibly-kept collections and an active research program. Under such circumstances, even major research institutions like the Field can’t possibly compete with rich private buyers. More than that, trying to outbid wealthy buyers for improperly-collected specimens would be a stupid move for any self-respecting institution, especially since $1 million would allow a museum’s paleontology crew to spend several seasons finding and collecting new dinosaurs.

Even when private collectors act in good faith, looted dinosaurs can still cause headaches for researchers. In 2009, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno and colleagues described Raptorex kriegsteini, which appeared to be a tiny prototype of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex body plan. They based the description on a skeleton purchased from a dealer by private collector Henry Kriegstein. When Kriegstein approached Sereno about identifying the fossil, Sereno realized that the new dinosaur species had been illegally collected and would have to be returned to China. Kriegstein agreed, and in exchange, Sereno named the dinosaur after Kriegstein’s parents. Through this arrangement, Raptorex was brought into the scientific literature and public trust, and was sent to a museum in Inner Mongolia, China.

The fate of Raptorex sounds like a happy ending, but a subsequent analysis of the same dinosaur highlighted how problematic commercially-collected specimens are. Museum of the Rockies paleontologist Denver Fowler and colleagues suspect that the skeleton of Raptorex is actually a juvenile Tarbosaurus. Anecdotal evidence and the scant amount of geologic information suggest that the dinosaur came from Mongolia rather than China. If we don’t know where fossils came from, how can we return fossils to their home countries, much less understand what the fossils mean?

Cases such as Prokopi’s, the illegal activities of commercial fossil hunter Nathan Murphy, and the legal tangles around “Tinker” the Tyrannosaurus underscore the shady nature of commercial collecting. And during a time when many museums are financially squeezed, the insistence of commercial collectors that they’d really like to sell specimens to research institutions where the fossils will be properly conserved and used to communicate science to the public—they really do claim this is their goal—is disingenuous. Rather than assisting science, commercial collectors are robbing everyone of specimens by making them accessible only to those with deep pockets.

Commercial collectors could do the right thing by working with professional paleontologists to responsibly excavate fossils for public institutions, with a small finder’s fee and rights to produce casts going to the commercial dealer. Of course, this would require private landowners and commercial collectors to stop seeing dollar signs made out of dinosaur bones. After the sale of Sue, Ida, and other high-profile fossils, researchers will continue to struggle against those who seek to turn petrifactions into profit.

Commercial collectors argue that, if they don’t act, many fossils may be destroyed due to erosion. And it’s true that there are not enough professional paleontologists to excavate every dinosaur that starts peeking out of the ground. But it would be better to let a Triceratops skull fall to pieces than have that specimen mangled by amateurs who ignore basic scientific data collection and then try to sell that skull to private buyers, hiding it away from researchers and fueling a market that makes significant specimens inaccessible. There is an opportunity cost to digging up one dinosaur and not another, but it’s better to lose a few in the process of rigorous science than to wind up with a jumble of dinosaurs of questionable provenance.

Correction, Jan. 9, 2012: This article originally misstated the first name of dinosaur reconstruction expert Robert Gaston. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus and Written in Stone. He blogs at Laelaps on National Geographic's Phenomena.