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RE: Bambiraptor (comment on Brochu's comments)

A technical error and a mistake on my part prevented the message
enclosed below from going through directly to the dinosaur list.  My
apologies again to Nathan for my part in this.  In any case, Chris
received the direct copy and already had the opportunity to respond to
the following message.  I provide it so that you can see the whole
message to which Chris was responding and also because from my
position I am able to determine the intent of the subscriber which was
to have the message go to the whole list.

-- MPR

------- Start of forwarded message -------
rom: Nathan Myhrvold <nathanm@intven.com>
To: "'cbrochu@mail.fmnh.org'" <cbrochu@mail.fmnh.org>, dinosaur@usc.edu
Subject: RE: Bambiraptor (comment on Brochu's comments)
Date: Tue, 21 Nov 2000 08:28:26 -0800

Art historians wouldn't agree with Chris that art is different - if there is
a Van Gogh or Rembrandt from a critical period in the artists life that they
can't study they are just as upset.  However, in most cases private art
collectors allow access because it enhances the value of the art work for it
to be studied.  

In many cases that is what private dinosaur collectors do, but sadly not all
cases.  There are disreputable private collectors, but clearly not all of
them (as Chris says).

This is an area where it is very difficult for anybody to claim to have
completely clean hands.

For example, who makes some of the biggest purchases of fossils?  Museums.
They want trophy specimens, and many museums want to display dinosaurs, but
do not bother to support dinosaur palenontology on an ongoing basis and
discover their own specimens.  So they buy trophy specimens at auction, or
deal with commercial collectors.  Without museums as customers commercial
collectors would be out of business.

I don't mean to put Chris on the spot, but the Field Museum bought Sue from
a source that many consider to be highly disreputable (Marice Williams).
It's not worth going through the whole Sue saga again, but this is the guy
who sold the specimen more than once, and got it back by a process that
caused his own tribe to sue him (no pun intended).  

After the Field Musem hired Chris because they previously had no full time
people in dinosaur paleontology.  Their sudden interest was because they got
the trophy specimen.  

Regardless of what you think of Mr Williams, the publicity surrounding the
Field Museum purchase of Sue has done more harm for academic collectors than
any other single act. Several specimens that the Museum of the Rockies had
collected, or were in the process of collecting on private land in Montana
were taken back or are in dispute by landowners who quote the $8 million the
Field Museum paid for Sue.  I know of many other examples where the Sue sale
has created crazy expectations on the part of private land owners who in the
past have donated specimens but now want to be paid megabucks for them - all
because of Sue.

The Field Museum could have hired Chris and mounted annual expeditions and
found their own specimen - it's not like active field programs are
unproductive!  It would have taken a few years, and might not have resulted
in a T rex, but it certainly would have gotten some interesting specimens to
display.  As an example, the expedition I am associated with Jack Horner at
Museum of the Rockies found 5 T rex this past summer - we don't know how
complete they are and they may not result in trophy specimens like Sue, but
will certainly gain a lot of knowledge.  Paul Sereno has gathered literally
tons of specimens this season - but not at auction houses.  Bob Baaker, Phil
Currie and many others (can't name them all) are very successful.  In fact,
mammal paleontologists at the Field Museum participate in the Madagascar
expeditions which have been highly productive in dinosaur material.

Getting dinosaur specimens for display by field work is a very viable
strategy - but many - in fact MOST museums don't have any commitment to
paleontology as a science. They just want to display dinosaurs because the
public likes them.  So they buy them at auction - and they share some of the
blame for this.

If museums had boycotted the Sue sale on ethical grounds the total price
paid would have been very much smaller - all of the significant late round
bidders were museums, and it is not clear that a single individual made a
serious bid (with the execption of individuals acting as donors for museum

You can say that the Field was courageous for "saving" Sue so Chris can
study it and write all about it.  At a lower price, and with less publicity
that might be the case.  But the huge price paid has distorted the market
for dinosaurs so much, and caused so many changes with private land owners
that it is may not be worth it.  Yes one great specimen MIGHT have been lost
to science, but it is not clear that the net loss to the entire field was
worth it.  And a private buyer might well have offered it for study.

I have commented in previous posts about the practice of exhibiting original
specimens rather than casts - which I consider to be an unethical
contributor to the problem.  It is part of the trophy mentality, and it
encourages the big auction sales.  It is hard to convince donors to spend
the money if you tell them that the originals are only back in the lab and
"all" that will be on display is a cast.  So they build the mystic of the
"real" bones on display.  It's another area where museums like to one-up
each other("but we have the REAL bones"), without contibuting materially to
the science of paleontology.

It would be a lot better if museums bragged about the number of
paleontologists they had on staff, the size of the field programs, or the
number of scientific publications they produce.  The great paradox is that
dinosaurs are incredibly popular with the public, but museums have largely
gotten a free ride with dinosaurs - exhibiting them without supporting the
science.   What if museums budget for paleontology was commensurate with the
display budget, or the number of square feet of the museum devoted to
dinosaurs?  There would be a hell of a lot more jobs in the field.

Please note that I am not suggesting Chris personally did anything wrong -
it wasn't his decision to buy the specimen.  I'm sure he'll make a big
scientific contribution with what he publishes on Sue.  However, it is a bit
ironic to hear about the ethics of commercial collecting from a guy working
for the institution that has made the largest and most visible recent
commitment in FAVOR of commercial collecting.

------- End of forwarded message -------