A disgusted researcher protests against the sale of priceless fossils

Remarkable fossils are the delight of auction houses, much to the dismay of researchers whose fingers they slip through…

The famous auction house Sotheby’s announced last week that a spectacular piece had joined its collection: the fossilized skeleton of a Gorgosaurus libratus 76 million years old will soon be put up for sale… much to the dismay of some researchers, who are doing everything they can to save this specimen from the clutches of private buyers.

This 3m high and 7m long fossil belonged to a cousin of the king of the dinosaurs, the famous Tyrannosaurus. In a remarkable state of preservation despite being 76 million years old, this piece, sublime in every respect, is a a real treasure that is of great interest to collectors ; according to the Associated Press, the auction house believes it can get a nice jackpot, namely 5 to eight 8 million dollars.

There is no doubt that the future owner can be proud of his acquisition and shine in society. And this is not an isolated case. It is even a trend that has the wind in its sails. In recent years, more and more high-value coins like this have been sold to wealthy collectors. American actors Nicolas Cage or Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, are among the personalities who have already tried to buy them, according to Business Insider.

A situation that obviously delights the institution. ” During my career I have been privileged to sell many unique and exceptional items, but few have the ability to amaze and capture the imagination like this incredible Gorgosaurus Skeleton exults Cassandra Hatton, head of the Science and Culture department at Sotheby’s, interviewed by the Associated Press.

A trend that infuriates researchers

But on the side of the researchers, the story is not quite the same. Thomas Carr, a paleontologist from Carthage College, has a very different take on the matter. For him, the sale of this Gorgosaurus is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and he wanted to let it be known without mincing words. ” This auction is disgusting he hisses, visibly resentful.

What he criticizes at these auctions is that these pieces very often leave academic circuits when they are sold to private collectors. An absolutely terrifying dynamic for paleontologists, and which is growing to such an extent that it is beginning to deprive the scientific community of invaluable objects of study.

In many cases, buyers prefer to display them at home and remain anonymous. And even when they can be reached, the majority rarely want to let specialists approach them. It is therefore a dead loss in terms of research. ” These are really interesting specimens that could just disappear Carr laments.

A question of priorities

This dynamic is all the more worrying as these sales send a message with serious consequences to the public. According to the paleontologist, they imply that the value of these coins is monetary before being scientific. These fossils are now mostly treated as collectibles rather than resources for research.

The perverse effect of this discourse is that it triggers an infernal spiral of inflation. The more these objects are resold, the more desirable they become, and the more the prices increase. And so on. Good news for speculators… and a killer for some museums and research institutes.

This trend directly threatens the ability of museums to acquire beautiful pieces for researchers and the public to enjoy. © Chris Nguyen

Indeed, since these fossils are now commodities like any other, museums must buy with their own funds. The problem is that these structures traditionally don’t roll in gold. And if this trend continues, even the most prestigious of them will simply no longer have the resources to afford such marvels. They will then be leniently suspended from a handful of philanthropists.

The United States, a veritable paleontological Wild West

This is all the more true in the United States, where the law is particularly permissive on this subject. In many countries there is a llegislation that immediately protects all items of scientific interest. Appropriating them is then punishable by huge fines and prison sentences.

This is particularly the case in China; the country of Xi Jinping very early understood the interest of putting a leaden screed on its abundant paleontological heritage. Same thing on the side of Canada, yet neighbor of Uncle Sam. But in the latter, anyone can dispose of these fossils as he sees fiton the sole condition that they were not exhumed on land belonging to the government.

This very liberal conception of scientific heritage could also lead to other abuses according to Carr. It’s a well-known fact: wherever there is money, there is also traffic. And the dizzying price of these specimens could encourage looters to seize these fossils to resell them at gold prices. In addition to the risk associated with the manipulation of these coins by amateurs, this would also have the effect of fueling traffic and consolidating this vicious circle.

Finally, it is important to specify that the appropriation of scientific heritage does not concern not just fossils. Very recently, for example, NASA embarked on a legal battle for a comparable reason. The objective: to recover a lot of very high value based on lunar dust which was also going to be sold at auction (see our article).

Unfortunately, there is no obvious answer short of passing tough legislation to lock down access to these parts. It is therefore to be hoped that whistleblowers like Carr will give more visibility to this phenomenon of privatization of scientific resources.

Leave a Comment