Palaeontologists Cry Foul Over Super Rich Buying Ancient Fossils

Seymouria (Seymouria baylorensis) from the Early Permian Period found as fossil in North America. Extinct prehistoric animals.

Even while private sales of dinosaur bones have long been a source of worry for paleontologists, the recent sale of a whole Gorgosaurus skeleton to an unidentified bidder at New York’s Sotheby’s auction house has reignited and exacerbated this problem. 

Scientists are concerned that once in private hands, prehistoric specimens might become little more than toys for the rich. They fear the specimens will remain out of the scientific community’s reach. The $6.1 million sale at Sotheby’s auction house in New York shook some heads. 

According to Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist from the United States who is associated with Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, dinosaurs are fast becoming a luxury good that only the very rich can afford, similar to art, vintage cars, or vintage whisky.

A projected selling price of around $6 million (£4.7 million) was revealed for a recently found skeleton of the famous Stegosaurus dinosaur last month. The acquisition, sale, and export of fossils is entirely lawful in a number of nations. But most paleontologists think these are scientific artifacts that should be preserved for future generations to examine, so it’s easy to see why they would rather not be in private hands.

Public collections do buy fossils when they can afford them, but most of them are simply unaffordable. Tragically, scientifically significant specimens have a fleeting online and media presence before disappearing into the hands of a private collector since museums simply cannot afford to purchase every dinosaur head that goes up for auction. Many of them never even reach the public auction.

Even in nations that have outright prohibited the selling of fossils, the trade has an undeniable impact since it stimulates illicit excavation and export. Dino Hunters and other such shows that highlight the monetary worth of each discovered bone have further fueled the fire by drawing media attention to each new expensive skeleton that goes on sale. Very few of the highly publicized incidents involving the unlawful collection and transportation of specimens have resulted in their recovery or return to their home countries.

Although many fossils are disappearing into private hands, not all of them have scientific worth. Thousands, however, are incredibly precious. The value of confiscated and returned material is often low. Finding fossils that have been transferred illegally still doesn’t advance science very far. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to this, and it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness when magnificent fossils that may add to our understanding of Earth and its past are marketed for their scientific worth only to wind up in a Silicon Valley office.