Read Caption
A cast of the prehistoric fish Xiphactinus at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Flickr user Ryan Somma, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Historical Fossils May Be Lost at Auction

Update (11/18/2013): I’m happy to report that the San Diego Natural History Museum has decided to withdraw the remaining fossils from auction. You can read their official statement here. Where the significant fossils will end up has not been announced, but I am relieved that they will be saved for science. And I applaud the efforts of Kenshu Shimada and other paleontologists who have worked so tirelessly to make sure the important specimens stay available for study.

Two weeks ago, paleontologists at this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Los Angeles, California were shocked to find a technical poster displaying tyrannosaur fossils that are soon going up for auction. The dinosaur, which has not been properly curated in a museum, may wind up in hands of a private buyer. But the controversial dinosaur isn’t the only fossil that may soon be lost to scientists on the Bonham’s block. More unsettling is the impending sale of historic specimens previously held at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

High-priced fossils rarely go up for auction alone. Headliner specimens are often joined by an array of other fossils from different sources that may or may not have been legally acquired by the sellers. And in the case of the Bonham’s sale next week, the “Dueling Dinosaurs” are supplemented, in part, by various specimens collected by the famous fossil hunter Charles H. Sternberg that were curated at the SDNHM. The museum specimens include an enormous fossil fish called Xiphactinus, and, until now, also counted a partial skull of the horned dinosaur Chasmosaurus. As the formal statement from the SVP on this matter states, “The decision to sell these fossils at public auction was not that of any paleontologist at the SDNHM”, but that doesn’t ease the worry that these fossils may soon be lost to a private collector.

Both the Xiphactinus and Chasmosaurus formed the basis of formal fossil studies and are important data points in ongoing investigations. Given the study and debate surrounding how horned dinosaurs changed as they aged, in particular, the loss of the Chasmosaurus skull to a private buyer would rob researchers of another individual with which to investigate growth and variation in this dinosaur and its kin.

But even at a more basic level, the loss of such specimens creates a major stumbling block for paleontology. If a previously-studied and published fossil has been deaccessioned and sold off, then the specimen is off limits to researchers who want to take a fresh look or check up on old data. The fossil has to effectively disappear from the literature as it’s no longer open to study. It’s a matter of reproduciblility. If a fossil like the Xiphactinus skeleton isn’t permanently stored and cared for in a museum, then no one can re-examine or check on what has been gleaned from that fossil before.

The irony of the sale is that the auction booklet plays up the historical nature of the SDNHM fossils, yet those who approved the sale thought that the fossils weren’t historically important enough to keep within the museum or trade to another. Charles H. Sternberg was a major figure in the field who discovered scads of beautiful specimens. Selling off specimens he collected vaporizes part of his history, and may frustrate researchers who later try to track down what he collected and worked on.

As of this morning, after the official SVP letter of complaint was issued, the Chasmosaurus skull has been withdrawn from auction. The Xiphactinus skeleton is still up for grabs, as is a mosasaur skeleton and other Sternberg-collected fossils. Given how long these fossils have been at the SDNHM, and how many researchers have pored over them, we may not even know how the full extent of what’s being lost until after the sale has taken place. This directly violates the ethics code of SVP.

Fossils are part of a natural history heritage that belongs to everyone. Selling them not only steals them away from science, but prevents researchers from translating discoveries from those fossils into the inspiring visions of prehistory presented in museums, books, and films. That is why SVP requires members to follow the statement that “The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into or keeps them within a public trust.” Whoever at the SDNHM authorized the sale of Sternberg’s fossils did so in opposition of this important standard to safeguard significant fossils.

There’s less than a week before the SDNHM fossils go up for auction. I hope that museum directors and staff there can work with the SVP to take another look at the fossils put up for sale and save some of Sternberg’s legacy, regardless of whether they stay in San Diego or are given to another institution for care. So many informative fossils have already been lost to private buyers. When a museum is involved in such a loss, the pain cuts that much deeper.

You can contact the San Diego Natural History Museum to object to the sale of Sternberg’s fossils here.

Update: The San Diego Natural History Museum has issued a statement about why their Sternberg collection was deaccessioned and put up for auction. According to the museum, the Sternberg fossils are “unrelated to our mission” and their sale was approved by the board of directors after other museums were contacted about taking the fossils.

Yet the statement neglects to say who determined that the fossils were unimportant to the SDNHM and how other institutions were contacted. From the outrage sparked by the publication of the auction catalog, it seems that many vertebrate paleontologists who have studied the fossils and consider them valuable had no idea of the impending sale. Paleontologist and Charles H. Sternberg expert Mike Everhart expressed his dismay to the Hays Daily News, and fossil fish expert Kenshu Shimada has likewise worked to rally paleontologists to stop the auction of scientifically-important specimens previously held by the SDNHM. The fact that the ceratopsid skull was withdrawn after being listed and will go to Alberta, Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum is another hint that paleontologists were not made fully aware of what was being sold until after the Bonham’s catalog was published.

While the SDNHM’s focus on acquiring fossils and geological samples relevant to southern California is certainly a worthwhile goal, raising funds by selling off scientifically and historically important specimens is not the way to do so.

[Top image by Ryan Somma, via Flickr]