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Why Selling Fossils Obstructs Science?

Bijgewerkt: 15 okt 2020

Mixed feelings last week (06-10-2020) within the paleontological community. The famous T-rex "Stan" was sold at auction for the staggering price of 31.8 million US dollars or roughly 27 million EUR. Historically this is the highest price ever to be paid for a fossil. But what to think about it all?


Image- copyright Spencer Platt and Getty Images
(c) Spencer Platt and Getty Images

The sale itself was the unfortunate result of a court-order imposed on the Black Hill Institute of Geological Research (BHI). In that perspective it should be made clear that it was not a volountary move to cash in on this unique specimen, but rather a painful way to deal with internal legal problems at the BHI.


Prior to the sale, the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (SVP) wrote a letter in which it asked to consider not selling the famous T-rex sekeleton. Well aware of the legal issues, they waited quite some time before communicating anything. Since the SVP is principally opposed to selling scientific important specimens, they knew that they weren't able to do anything about it legally. Yet this and other initiatives opposed to the sale, could not prevent the auction to take place at Christie's in New York.


So what exactly do we know: not very much, besides the fact that an anonymous buyer was convinced to put an immense amount of money on the table to buy the famous Tyrannosaurus skeleton. So, where does that leave science you might ask? Well quite frankly it leaves science a bit impotent, stranded in disbelief.


The days were research institutions or governments had huge amounts of money to spend on obtaining unique specimens for research is long behind us. Science loses not only a unique specimen that would be open for future scientific research, but also an important museal attraction. A T-rex like "Stan" is a unique object and perfect signboard to inform and educate people at the same time persuading them to buy a ticket to visit the museum.


Yesterday (12-10-2020) the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) released a post concerning the sale, hoping that the specimen will find it's way to a museum in the end just like the "Arkhane" specimen did in 2019. This particular 'Allosaur-like' Jurassic dinosaur was auctioned in June 2014 by Aguttes in Paris. The Arkhane skeleton was the object of an intense media campaign criticizing the sale of this undescribed species.


The problem in our opinion is that scientific research and international law should prevent these kind of transactions. Stan and many other specimens are world heritage and should be protected accordingly. This status should prevent the fact that fossils are to be regarded as aesthetic objects and automatically come with a price tag.


We mourn the loss an important scientific specimen and hope that within the paleontological community we can come up with a solution to prevent similar auctions to take place. Objects of science are not private property, they belong to all of mankind.


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