Big bucks for those old bones

SAN FRANCISCO — SAN FRANCISCO -- It took just 21 seconds, one bang of a wooden mallet at the venerable Butterfields auction house on a recent day and "Reina," a diminutive, 74 million-year-old Leptoceratops had reached its highest bid: $75,000.

Although such transactions occur quietly, controversy surrounding them does not: The growing sales of natural-history objects -- from trilobites and meteorites to entire dinosaur skeletons -- is stirring up museums, universities and auction houses.


Reina, the most controversial item offered, was not sold that day because the $75,000 offered did not top the owner's minimum bid of $120,000. But a Siberian woolly mammoth tusk sold for nearly $32,000, and a small fossil turtle sold for $18,400, to the chagrin of paleontologist Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley. Padian argues that riches such as Reina -- one of only two known slender, horned-faced dinosaurs -- belong in museums and not in the homes of rich collectors.

It hurts Padian just as much to see the smaller fossils go, as dozens of them did that day.


"They'll be lost to science, to the public and to education," he says.

"And they're not renewable. When they're gone, they're gone."

The sale of fossils is big business, bringing in about $40 million annually. The fossils auctioned at Butterfields brought in $160,000.

The charge that science is being robbed perturbs David Herskowitz, director of natural history for Butterfields, a leading purveyor of such goods and the world's fourth-largest auction house. "I have a lot of things that are extremely rare, like that woolly mammoth horn," he said in an auction preview room that contained a nest of 17 raptor eggs, a 1,267.5- carat opal and two mating insects trapped in amber. "But I do not sell anything that's crucial to science."

Padian contends that scientists and not profiteers should decide what is crucial.

What worries scientists is a shadowy and sometimes illicit trade in bones. Thieves can ruin fossils, sites and years of scientific work -- as happened in eastern Utah last spring, when a massive and nearly complete Stegosaurus was destroyed.

A federal task force called Operation Rockfish has recovered more than $7 million worth of stolen fossils -- and discovered that most fossil thieves are suspected felons. One thief was arrested trying to swap a Triceratops skull for $60,000 in cocaine.

Forgeries are also a problem and seem to be on the rise because of the growing private market for fossils.


A notorious forgery was discovered last year after it had been described on National Geographic's cover as the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds. The specimen turned out to be the clever work of Chinese farmers, who patched the tail of a dinosaur onto the body of a fossil bird to increase value.

Such forgeries, Padian said, are a damaging legacy of the commercial fossil trade. The average Chinese villager "earns only a meager salary by Western standards," Padian wrote in a recent editorial. "The lure of money from fossil dealers is difficult to resist."

A worse crime -- and this is the rare item on which Padian and Herskowitz agree -- is committed by those commercial fossil hunters who excavate fossils without carefully recording their location, the exact "death position" of the bones and other fossils associated with the bones. That information may have no direct market value, but it is priceless to paleontologists.

"Professional collectors aren't interested in that information," says Padian, a dinosaur expert noted for his work on determining the origin of birds and of flight. Many commercial hunters refuse to disclose exactly where bones were found for fear of competition at their site.

"In every industry there are bad guys," said Herskowitz, who used to be in the gem business, trading diamonds and other jewels in the former Soviet Union.

In 1992, a speck in a piece of amber caught his eye. The speck turned out to be a trapped fly that increased the value of the nugget from $6 to $300. In 1993, the movie "Jurassic Park" opened, cementing America's love affair with dinosaurs and exploding the market for insects trapped in amber.


"That's when I got really interested," Herskowitz says.

Paleontologists have long enjoyed a relationship with amateur collectors. The backbones of most museum fossil collections are former private collections.

The deep rift seen today, Padian says, stems from the advent of commercial collectors and the growing commerce associated with fossils. Padian's museum, the Berkeley Museum of Paleontology, will no longer identify fossils for collectors.

"We've gotten very cynical," he says. "The first question is, 'What is it?' The second question is, 'What is it worth?'"

The debate now centers on who should be able to collect America's fossils. It is a federal crime to steal fossils from public lands. Academic dinosaur hunters can dig up bones from public land with permits, but only if the bones are then placed in a museum; all fossils remain the property of the U.S. government.

Some Western senators, including South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, are looking for ways to loosen restrictions on fossil hunting -- something Padian and the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology strongly oppose.


The group would like to see a ban on export of fossils dug up in the United States and a way to ensure that any scientifically valuable fossils -- even if they come from private land -- are maintained in museums for study and public view. "We believe these are part of the whole country's heritage," says Ted J. Vlamis, a Wichita, Kan., businessman and president of a group called Save America's Fossils for Everyone.

Some commercial fossil hunters argue that they are doing everyone a favor because the more people who collect fossils responsibly, the more fossils there will be -- for science and for the marketplace.

"Things are being lost to science because we don't have enough people out there looking. There are not enough degreed paleontologists or tax dollars ... to look at nearly a half-billion acres of public lands, let alone private lands," says Marion Zenker, marketing coordinator for the Black Hills Institute, a leading commercial fossil excavator in South Dakota.

Zenker, a plain-spoken former truck driver and mother of eight, says academic hunters "act like the high priests of paleontology."

Robert Bakker, the Harvard- and Yale-trained paleontologist who helped advance the idea that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, has remarked that many of his colleagues promote a class system.

"We guys with Ph.D.s think we have a God-given right to dictate where and how specimens are collected" -- something Bakker says is not in the public interest.


Zenker's Black Hills Institute is the organization that initially found Sue, the world's most famous Tyrannosaurus rex -- and the world's most costly.

Sue sold at a Sotheby's auction in 1997 for $8.4 million -- leading many to fear important dinosaur fossils would remain out of the reach of cash-strapped museums. Sue's story ended happily; corporate benefactors sponsored her purchase donation to Chicago's Field Museum.

While he likes to keep all of his private clients satisfied, Herskowitz says he is happiest when his specimens wind up in museums. Last year, an extremely valuable fossil, the first gliding reptile, Icarosaurus siefkeri, was taken from the American Museum of Natural History by its discoverer, Alfred Siefker, and put on sale to cover stroke-related medical expenses.

When a retired San Francisco Bay area developer and bird lover named Dick Spight stepped in to buy the fossil for $167,500, Padian persuaded him to donate the fossil back to the museum, where it now resides -- making everyone happy.