Fossils have always held wide appeal. Natural history museums and their mighty dinosaur or mammoth skeletons are a major draw worldwide. But aside from their scientific and educational value, fossils can also be highly lucrative. The money has led to a prolific but often legally questionable fossil trade.
Commercial fossil hunting is actually nothing new. The famous Mary Anning made her living selling small fossils that she excavated to seaside vacationers and large skeletons to museums in London. She entered the trade following in her father’s footsteps, and became one of the most successful fossil peddlers, but by no means the first.
In the twentieth century, the value of fossils as art and collector’s items only increased. Some of this value was created by museums; the American Museum of Natural History in New York hosted a dinosaur egg auction in 1923 to raise funds for further excavating work. In the process, they tipped off the government of China—where the egg had been collected—to the value of their fossil resources and sparked a diplomatic crisis that ended future access to Chinese fossils for decades.
In many places today, fossils technically belong to the landowner, and fossils can be removed with permission, often in exchange for payment. Middlemen sell specimens to the highest bidder, whether it’s a museum or a wealthy collector who wants their own stegosaurus. Chicago’s Field Museum bought Sue the Tyrannosaurus for nearly 8.5 million, most of which went to the landowner after a legal battle. A museum in Norway paid an extravagant sum for a primate fossil. Both institutions received extensive criticism for driving up prices; they countered that otherwise the fossils would wind up in private hands, unstudied.
Recently, many early bird and feathered dinosaur fossils that provide unique insight into the bird/dinosaur transition have been discovered in Liaoning, China. These “precious” fossils are a source of national pride. China prohibits individual fossil hunting, but allows the regulated sale of “ordinary” fossils. And most of the fossil discoverers are local farmers who are happy to sell new discoveries (like these “ordinary fossils”) under the table. With such a large area to regulate and uneven enforcement, illegal sales and excavations are rampant. Chinese national institutions have sounded the alarm, concerned that important discoveries are being lost.
Unfortunately, scientists and educators are usually financially outgunned when it comes to fossil purchases, especially as the prices continue to rise. Trade in common items like shark teeth is benign, but two minutes on the internet can get you an entire skull. Low-income landowners feel they have the right to cash in. Who knows what information is lost behind the closed doors of a collector’s home.