For Private Collectors, Dinosaur Bones Are Like The New Picasso

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

These days, fossil collectors crave bones like fine art. In the last month, a tyrannosaurus tooth sold at auction for over $11,000. A double butterfly in amber sold at the same auction for almost $38,000.

Could bones become the new Picasso? And who has the cash to take a bite out of the world's inventory of dinosaur bones anyway?

Christian Sidor is a paleontologist at the Burke Museum. He says that among all the rare things in the world that collectors yearn for, dinosaurs and fossils are at the top of the list. And people generally don't have to go far. They can search their own private land.

"There are a lot of commercial collectors out there these days," Sidor said. "There's a huge economic incentive for people to go out and look for them on private land. All of that is totally legal."

"That's what our culture, our government, has decided is the way to go. We've carved out exceptions for archeological sites, you're not allowed to just take [from] whatever archeological site that's on your land, that has special laws governing it [...] fossils are treated as private property, and so if you're on your land, it belongs to you."

Sometimes, land owners will strike a deal with a commercial outlet and let them excavate the private land for fossils. In return, they'll share the fossil's profits after it sells at auction.

There's a market for just about anything — and fossils are hot right now. Collectors are paying tens of thousands of dollars for the latest dig, and that's making it difficult for museums and universities. Private collections are also threatening paleontologists' missions to track important finds.

But what about paleontologists like Sidor? Does he decorate his home with dinosaur skeletons? Or at a minimum, keep a private collection of fossils?

"No, I don't," Sidor said. "As a professional paleontologist, we have an ethics statement. And part of that [is] fossils should be reposited in public museums. So, a privately-held fossil goes against that ethics statement."

What about the ethical responsibility of museums? Museums in the United States and Europe have a historical legacy of taking fossils from the countries they colonized, and then displaying them in their own museums.

Sidor says that in the past few years, he's heard of several cases in which fossils were illegally exported, and then ended up in a museum or in the hands of a private owner.

"There are just so many fossils however, we'll never know of, that go into private hands [and] the research community never hears of them, or only hears of them through some shadowy photo that someone has of this spectacular something or other, that will never see the light of day, scientifically," Sidor said.

When it comes with competing with private fossil collectors with seemingly unlimited budgets, public institutions like museums just can't keep up.

"Anytime we're competing with private individuals who have that kind of purchasing power, natural history museums as nonprofits just can't compete," Sidor said. "Barring having people who are affiliated with the museum, supporters of the museum will go out and purchase something and then donate it to the museum, we're out of luck."

Dinosaurs have fascinated humans for centuries, and they still impact our culture today. Movie franchises like Jurassic Park are a testament to that. It's understandable that dinosaur fanatics could want to own the bone of their favorite type of herbivore. But that desire comes at a greater cost, according to Sidor.

"People should know that if fossils go into private hands, the scientists aren't going to see them, but more importantly, maybe the public isn't going to see them," Sidor said. "They're going to be in someone's big vaulted ceiling, and at some point in the future someone's probably going to get bored of that and decide they want something else in that space, and then who knows what happens to the fossil at that point?

Produced for the web by Noel Gasca from an interview between host Bill Radke and Christian Sidor from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture