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From Dan Chure
Dan Chure asked me to send this to the dinosaur list and the vert paleo list:
I'm not at work today and tried sending the story below to vrtpaleo but
they didn't recognized me as subscribed from this email address. Would
you please post this to vrtpaleo for me? Also, maybe the dinosaur
Skullduggery among Russia's old bones
Byline: Fred Weir Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Click here to read this story online:
(MOSCOW)The faded Gothic building that houses Russia's scandal-ridden
Paleontological Institute is a musty labyrinth of dimly lit corridors
that sometimes end abruptly or plunge into a murky stairwell. Crowded
along the walls, cabinets bulge with fossils and jumbled heaps of
ancient rock, assorted skulls, and dinosaur bones. It is the perfect
setting for a whodunit.
And there is a mystery here.
Over the past decade hundreds of unique fossils, potentially worth
millions of dollars, have vanished from the 200-year-old collection of
the institute, which is known by its acronym PIN.
A few Russian paleontologists, cautiously backed by a group of Western
colleagues, have accused the institute's directors of master minding
the heists and using the proceeds to set up private companies. Those
same firms, they allege, are now ravaging Russia's fragile natural
fossil deposits and collaborating with PIN insiders to fake the "expert
certificates" required by Russian law to export scientifically
important specimens to lucrative Western fossil markets.
"We have foxes guarding the hen house," says Larissa Doguzhayeva, a
leading PIN researcher who says she was demoted and had her salary cut
after she started investigating the thefts several years ago. "In the
past decade, those in power started privatizing the state property
under their control and using it to enrich themselves. That's the only
explanation for what happened here at PIN."
No one denies that massive thefts did take place at PIN, mostly in the
chaotic and poverty-stricken 1990s, when scientists' salaries dropped
below subsistence level. Many experts left the institute, and some
started fossil-exporting businesses. But beyond that, says PIN director
Alexei Rozanov, "the allegations are abhorrent, the worst kind of
lies." He refuses to talk further, saying only that "the police have
not made any charges based on this, nothing at all."
In December 1996, a reporter for the science journal Nature asked PIN
deputy director Igor Novikov why the institute had reported almost none
of the fossil thefts from its inventory to police. Novikov said there
was little point in doing so, since "we cannot expect much help in such
cases from the police, either Russian or Interpol." One case that was
reported remains unsolved, although police concluded it was an inside
Arkady Zakharov, a former PIN scientist who founded a company called
Russian Fossils, says the issue of thefts is a red herring launched by
political forces who want to discredit capitalism. "The main issue is
not a few items that were stolen years ago," he says. "It's about
private property that is gathered and restored by companies that work
in a normal way. Scientists like Doguzhayeva think our property should
Countries around the world regulate paleontological finds in a number
of ways. In the US, rules vary according to who owns the land where the
item is found. In Canada, the state has the right to buy any fossil
determined to be scientifically valuable.
Ms. Doguzhayeva, a top expert on ammonites, or prehistoric mollusks,
says she became alarmed one day in 1996 when Mr. Zakharov brought a
German fossil dealer named Joachim Wordemann to see her. "They offered
to buy a big collection of ammonites I had just gathered in field
work," she says. "I told them it was state property, and asked them to
leave my office."
A few weeks later, upon returning from a conference abroad, she found
the collection had been stolen. "There is no doubt it was an inside
job," she says. PIN director Rozanov showed no interest in the
disappearance, she says, and refused to report it to the police.
Zakharov, the scientist-turned-merchant, denies that the visit to
Doguzhayeva's office ever took place.
In a separate incident, Mr. Wordemann, the German fossil dealer, was
arrested by Russian authorities in St. Petersburg in 1999 and charged
with trying to transport a truckload of partially undocumented fossils
By the mid-'90s, some Western paleontologists began to notice valuable
specimens from the world-famous PIN inventory turning up on private
markets in Europe and the US. One day in 1994, Rupert Wild, curator of
the State Museum for Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, was amazed
to see a unique 240-million-year-old amphibian skull available for
private sale. So he asked the dealer - the same Wordemann - if he could
borrow it. Back in his office, under special lighting, Dr. Wild found a
partially erased Soviet catalog number from PIN stencilled on the
piece. The skull was later returned to Russia.
An informal working group of seven Western paleontologists, including
Dr. Wild, was created to help identify and recover stolen Russian
fossils from crooked dealers. It compiled an extensive list of missing
items that included rare dinosaur skeletons, mammoth tusks, remains of
the extinct cave bear, and Doguzhayeva's ammonites. But the group ran
up against a brick wall after asking PIN directors to confirm other
"Numerous lines of evidence point to an organized group operating
within PIN, with direct access to PIN collections, well developed
contacts with foreign commercial dealers, and the facility to move
stolen items through Russian customs," said the group's 1998 report.
Without cooperation from PIN, the Western scientists have been able to
do little since. "We were met with such opposition by the Institute in
Moscow, which we were naively trying to help," says Prof. Michael
Benton of Bristol University, one of the group's members. "That in
itself is interesting."
Even Doguzhayeva, the whistle-blower, says the pillaging of PIN's
collections has probably ended. The same people have moved from
burglary to business, she alleges. Russia's rich fossil grounds are
being ruined by ruthless predators, working in league with rogue
scientists, who smash the sedimentary strata with machinery and cart
fossils away by the truckload. "The last time I went to search for
ammonites, near Shilovka on the Volga River, I was stunned by the
destruction," she says. "I wept for days."
Last January the Ministry of Culture, which has authority over art and
antiquities in Russia, asked Doguzhayeva to examine a collection of
12,000 ammonites recently dug up in the Volga region by Mr. Zakharov's
Russian Fossils company. An expert from PIN had already certified the
batch, potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars, as
"scientifically worthless" and therefore eligible for export. "I was
flabbergasted," Doguzhayeva says. "You could have written several
papers about some of those specimens."
But Zakharov tells a very different story. He says all excavations are
carried out with the participation of scientists, who are given free
access to any really interesting finds. "Maybe some fossils are unique,
and should be in a museum, but how many examples of a particular type
of ammonite does Doguzhayeva need?," he says. "According to her, they
should all belong to science, as in Soviet days. She cannot get used to
the idea that we have a market economy now, and these fossils are my
private property." Zakharov concedes that his company pays experts from
PIN to evaluate fossils and certify them for export, but denies any
conflict of interest. "The experts would be paid whether they certify
the fossils or not," he says. "We have to pay them because the Ministry
of Culture can't afford to."
At least one top PIN official remains a "good friend," says Zakharov,
though "there is emphatically no business relationship." And he
acknowledges that his main foreign partner is Wordemann, but he insists
that the German dealer's legal misadventures were "all his own doing."
For Zakharov, the case of the stolen PIN materials is a police matter
and none of his affair. The real problem today, he says, is the Soviet
mind-set of government officials who cannot tolerate the idea of modern
commerce in fossils. Doguzhayeva, whose angry resistance has prompted
the Ministry of Culture to block the export of his ammonite collection,
is "totally subjective." He says, "She is against business. How can she
be allowed to have so much influence?".
Doguzhayeva has a different view. "A few people enriched themselves by
looting our nation's heritage," she says. "They want us to forget the
past, accept them as normal businessmen, and agree that all is right
with the world. I can't reconcile myself to that."
(c) Copyright 2001 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.