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Re: illegal fossil sales

On Tue, July 7, FALCON2426@aol.com wrote:

When I was younger (I still am young), I used to think that
did all of their work for no pay.  I never thought anything about
sales and things like that.  I always figured that this was so
important, all
of the expenses were paid by the government.  Its really dumb to me how
would want to do anything illegal with a dinosaur bone.

You are not alone. I identify with your sentiments. To give you a better
understanding of the dynamics taking place on either side, I am
submitting a correspondance from last year that took place between my
business partner, Dr. Wendy Taylor and a proprietor of a website whose
ethics we questioned and their subsequent response. This response to
their answer to our concerns, really frames the debate pretty well.
Wendy is a Dr. of paleontology and the other point of view is a dealer
of some illegal fossils (et al) from the Chenjiang Fauna of China.
Commentary is welcome.

Dear N C:

W.T.- I wrote the message to you asking you for your position on the
sale of rare and unusal specimens. I was amazed to see on your Web
site specimens from China! I was under the impression that the export
and commerce in such items was not condoned by the Chinese
governement. I work at a major natural history museum and have currently
been surveying the policies in place at other museums in
the US relating to handling and acceptance of imported specimens.

>NC - China has no treaties with the United States or anywhere else that
make the
>possession of fossils from China a crime. Like most propaganda, what
you hear
>versus the reality is quite different. All of the Chinese fossils I
have ever
>seen for sale have come from reputable Chinese universities. Guilin
>University in Henan Province, for example, set up a booth at the Denver

>fossil show in 1995 for the express purpose of selling fossils and they

>continue to do so to this day. If it doesn't bother them, why should it

>bother you?

WT- It seems very odd to me that all or most reputable natural history
museums in this country would not accept a Chinese fossil if you
offered to give it to them! At least that's the kind of reponse I've
heard come from people at several of the largest museums in the US,
namely the Smithsonian and the American Museum. I work in a major
natural history museum in the US and through my
correspondances and conversations with various museum curators, it has
been explictly pointed out to me that few museums today
accept Chinese specimens without some kind of exchange or formal
exception by the Chinese government. Why would natural history
museums bother to be so careful and even write policies on these issues,
if there wasn't some kind of concern? Unfortunately, many
countries like China, Russia and others don't have any or very vague
regulations/protocols for the export of important specimens. This
leaves room for alot of confusion.

It would be helpful for everyone on all sides of these issues to have
some legal guidelines to follow. Frankly, I work with a number of
amateur collectors (and have done so for almost ten years--productively
and respectfully) and some of them have even come to me
wanting to "get rid of" specimens from some of these places. Hum.

> NC-The squid has even less justification for your indignant stance.
All but one
>of the quarries at Solnhofen are privately owned by stone companies who

>generously donate a large number of fossils to museums and sell the
>Since the fossils are 100% private property they have every right to do
>them as they wish. The single publicly owned quarry is abandoned and no

>scientific institution has ever been willing to invest the enormous
sums of
>money required to re-open it. Considering that every company has to pay
>workers, including those that must prep the fossils for study or
display and
>that running a quarry is very expensive, who do you think is paying to
>the quarries open so that any fossils can be donated at all?

WT- Seems to me the message wasn't disputing the legal operation and
support of comercial quarries, that isn't the issue, but was refering
to the ultimate home of unusual specimens. I think most informed and
upbeat professionals are well aware of the contribution and
importance of amateur, commercial activities--no question. Many people,
not just professionals, feel our entire science is diminished
when we hear that specimens of great scientific or public (educational
value) get priced right out of the museum market only to land
in the hands of private collectors. Of course, some things are bound to
end up there, but extraordinary specimens should have special
considerations. If your giant fossil squid is commonplace and not worthy
of such considerations, then it wouldn't hurt to say that in
it's description.

In regards to how many specimens will ever see the light of day, you
>ask the same thing of museums. The University of CA at Berkeley, for
>has over 5 million fossils in its collections and less than 200 of them
>on display. Neither you nor I will ever see those other 4.9+ million
>since access to them is restricted exclusively to approved researchers.

WT - A museum is essentially a "library" of specimens. It would be
crazy, not to mention utterly impossible, to make the "display" of a
specimen a requirement for its curation and protection! No museum on the
face of the Earth would be able to comply!! That doesn't
relate to the importance of or the important role they play! Our
reponsability is to insure that adaquate numbers, varieties and unusal
specimens that are protected for everyone--these objects should be
protected to serve to inspire and teach us about the history of our

It makes sense that if you're trying to protect specimens for future
generations, that you'd want to keep handling at a minimum and let
those people handle items for only very limited and constrained
purposes--e.g., research and exhibit. There is some give in this
however, I make exceptions for people who are not formal researchers all
the time. I actually give tours through our collection ranges
to the public practically every day! My goal is to promote collections
and teach people why they are important and relevant to even
everyday life (we drive to work everyday thanks to the work of
paleontologists). Every museum in the country has not only
protection and curation as one it's major goals, but also public
education. This is how we justify our own existance! Just research
doesn't cut it anymore.

> NC - Perhaps this OK with you since they are taking good care of them?
>again. In the 1980's, the University of Nebraska disposed of an
>collection of Miocene vertebrates that were collected decades before.
>they had stored them in tin sheds with no moisture control, algae and
>destroyed most of the plaster jackets and thus destroyed hundreds of
>specimens and left thousands more with no field numbers so all
>information regarding them was lost.

WT - No point in agonizing over all the mistakes that get made on both
sides of the fence. As a curator, I've seen horrendous things done to
collections by university administrations, amateur collectors,
professionals, on down the line. But I will tell you the worst offender
the simple lack of money and committment. Our goal is to raise the
public's awareness to the fate, utility and value of collections. If all

of us don't work together on this one, the number of collections that
are orphaned and destroyed, will only rise and rise. This is a
problem that can only be solved with the teamwork/cooperation between
the amateurs, dealers and professionals alike. Right now,
we're it!

NC - Even more ridiculous is the much
>publicized "Sue" case in which years of zealous government legal
>(to the tune of over 3 million dollars in taxpayer money-- look it up)
>resulted in nothing more than turning it over to the landowner Maurice
>Williams who couldn't care less what country it ends up in or in what
>condition. The Black Hills Institute (the commercial collectors who
>the dinosaur and put more than $40,000 into prepping just the skull
>would have kept Sue in their museum in Hill City, SD and sold casts of
>around the world, but now Sue is up for grabs to the highest bidder. So
>for preserving it for posterity.

WT - Hey, on this one, most professions that I know didn't agree with
the way it was handled in the first place, but this one was totally
botched on many levels.

>NC -  Frankly, you need to realize that fossils are "things" like
>else-- some people study them, some people collect them and many don't
>either way. It's all well and good to take an etherial stance and
>the scientific value of this and that, but its all just one point of

WT - It seems that most amateurs I talk with agree that all fossils are
not created equal and are just "things" like every thing else. For your
information, the American public feels this way--I have a survey to
prove it and would be happy to pass this along. Actually, most of
the collectors I work with realize the intrinsig value of some things
over others--e.g., a slab of Solenhofen with a shrimp versus a slab
with an Archaeopteryx. Most people would beg to differ. Museums around
the world pay a hefty price in both human and financial
resources to store and curate millions of specimens indefinately.

>NC - It would be far better for
>paleontology in general if all sides could cooperate in an
understanding that
>no one has any more innate "right" of priority regarding fossils and
>allow each to help the other rather than engage in an unending argument
>neither side can ever win.

WT - You're absolutely right about cooperation. The science of
paleontology is one of the most wonderfully inspiring and utterly
fields, that suffers because we don't take the time to communicate with
and engage the public enough. Hopefully this is changing.
>NC - The museums to which The Natural Canvas donates fossils are glad
to have what
>we give them and don't waste our time or theirs debating such a
>issue. Political correctness accomplishes nothing.

WT - Wow! Since when is it offensive to be politically correct? Asking
for information and debating issues isn't a waste of time.

NC - Furthermore, it is the duty of any reputable museum to accept only
specimens that were collected legally and have the proper
paperwork (especially if it's a object from another country). Museums
are mandated to constantly keep tabs on just these types of
discussions and debates that engage not only the organizations that
support and police them, but also by the professional community
and the public.

WT - If we didn't waste time "debating" these issues, how could we ever
hope to understand all the complex points of view? I wonder what
it would solve if we all just through up our arms and stopped
considering the diversity of oppinions?

IWT - t's sure is alot easier to be politically incorrect, it's
certainly more prodictive to hear each other out. I appreciate your
candor and
would honestly like to keep exploring these issues!

Wendy L. Taylor

>From this we received no further response.

Kim Heman