Fossils for Sale

Fossils have always been regarded as fascinating objects. See Adrienne Mayor's book on the understanding of fossils through history. Fossils have been found in prehistoric burials, worked into art objects. They were traded along ancient highways and seaways. And that means that they have value, then and now.

So it's not surprising that there is a flourishing and lucrative trade in fossils today. People raid sites that are known to contain are and/or beautiful fossils, no matter who the official owner might be. (It's the same in gemstones, of course.)

Unlike gemstones, fossils often contain immense and unique scientific information, and any scientist will tell you that the best place for a fossil is in some scientist's laboratory and then in a public museum. Since neither scientists or museums have miney to spare, this results in tension, especially when really valuable fossils are locked up in a private collector's basement where he can legally deny access for scientific study. (It's almost always a "he".)

Collectors, traders, and buyers will respond that many specimens do in fact end up in museums, and that specimens that would otherwise have not been discovered have been revealed by professional collectors. There are some dramatic examples:

  1. The marine reptiles of the Dorset coast (southern England) collected and sold by Mary Anning in the early 1800s promoted an understanding of the astonishing range of extinct creatures that established the fact of extinction beyond all doubt. Furthermore, because these were marine creatures, they could not have been casulaties of Noah's Flood.
  2. The first Archaeopteryx was sold to the British Museum for enough money to provide a dowry for the owner's daughter: that's a win-win situation if ever I heard one.
  3. Many of the great dinosaur finds in the American West were made by professional teams of collectors, whi sold their finds to the big museums back East. The flood of amazing finds from the West set off a dinosaur frenzy among the general populace that has never waned.

Having said all that, there's a tremendous but unknown casualty rate among superb fossils that are ruined during clumsy collecting, damaged by poor preparation, and sometimes faked beyond recognition.

There is nothing much to be done about the tension between commerce and science. The best thing is to have a political decision with proper legislation that will define rules in each country, state, etc., etc., for prospecting, collecting, trading, selling, and donating fossils, and and then those rules have to be enforced. Chaos probably leads to more destruction than clear guidelines, whether those guidelines are perceived as too restrictive or too lax.

Web sites