Stealing History

Everyone wants to have things of value in their home, especially objects which immediately catch the attention of visitors, because it makes the host seem that much more interesting, doesn't it? Guests would be certain to ask all sorts of questions if the five foot skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex took up the top of the coffee table, but how selfish the owner would have be, in real terms, by keeping such an important piece of archeology to themselves.

Not that it isn't possible to legally own such relics, because there are certified dealers, but there are drawbacks that really need to be considered before you even think about it. You need an awful lot of money to indulge such a fancy, because the skull mentioned could easily set you back anywhere up to $75,000, but there also comes the question of how much information you 'd be denying to the scientific world just by taking possession.

If you really are so self centered and wealthy that these points don't bother you, then consider that the fossil you buy may well not come from a legal source at all, because fossil smuggling is today a massive
International problem. As the numbers of collectors grow, so the financial incentives increase for smugglers and fossils don't need to be big to be of real value.

When thousands of bird fossils were discovered in Sihetun in China in the early nineties, it was found that the thrush size Cofuciusornis would fit into the palm of the hand. A Chinese worker struggles for two years to earn $1500, yet that was the black market price for a single specimen. It was only natural that this should prove tempting, as overseas buyers would gladly pay four times as much to the middlemen.

The Chinese have since implemented a strictly controlled Fossil
Preservation Zone since then, but the trade still goes on. There are untold thousands of fossil skeletons around the globe, and they fascinate everyone who sees them, so the market for illegal items is huge. Fossilized footprints were actually removed from an Isle of Wight beach in England for use in a landscape gardening project, to howls of disapproval.

Around the same time, the Broome Sandstone in Australia suffered a similar loss, when tracks of dinosaurs never before recorded in he area - and holy to the local aborigines - mysteriously vanished overnight. Perhaps one of the most damaging things to happen to the fossil world was the 1993 release of the film 'Jurassic Park', because it sparked a frenzy of interest in Fossil eggs.

The Chinese were again the main target, because the country is rich in such remains. These eggs had been used in traditional medicines and jewelry for centuries, but not thought to be worth real money until he early 90's when Jurassic Park fever was at it's height. Even Hollywood celebrities would pay $1200 for a small egg, and a nest with ten in it fetched an incredible $78,000 at auction.

Even Europeans had caught the bug, and Christie's of London sold a French fossil egg for $8,250 in 1993, while Bonhams of Knightsbridge got $75,000 for an 18-inch nest. It is even reported that 23 pieces of dinosaur dung from Utah were also sold in London at the time for $5,000. Michael Chrichton, author of the idea of DNA retrieval from fossils, may have a lot to answer for, because this simply fictitious notion fired the public imagination in a huge way.

Nowadays, the Chinese government imposes draconian fines and stiff jail sentences on those caught stealing such fossils, and have banned the trade in them for all but legitimate scientific reasons, but that seems unlikely to put a real end to it. Genuine dealers today charge between $150 and $1500 per egg, but the demand for rare specimens continues to grow, as do the illegal rewards.

An undercover operation in 1996 in Los Angeles grabbed an illegal shipment of 100 Chinese eggs and nests thought to be worth $400,000 on the black market. So long as there are buyers, there will be those willing to supply, and an inspection at one US fossil show in 1997 found 50 Cofuciusornis eggs on sale, despite the Chinese restrictions.

Perhaps the most worrying trend is the increasing tendency to steal from Museums and exhibitions. In September 1994, 490 items were taken from Carleton College in Minnesota, and in 1996, fossils of three dinosaurs made famous by 'Jurassic Park' disappeared from the visitor center at the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur quarry in Utah.

The rarest fossils are prime targets for thieves, like the part skeleton of Archeoptrix - a primitive bird of which only eight examples are known worldwide - stolen from Langelaltheim, Germany in 1955. Such a treasure would fetch an astronomical price, but what a loss to the rest of the world.

The Russians also have a major problem in this area, as really unique pieces disappear from The Museum of the Palaeontological Institute in Moscow at an alarming rate. The skulls of Breviceratops - only found in 1990 – and Tarbosaurus - similar to T rex - have vanished along with many other important pieces.

It's believed that after the communists fell from power, money to keep the Institute going was hard to obtain, so the authorities actually
Encouraged staff to set up in the relic business. How else could someone walk out of a museum with a huge item under his or her arm? The rewards are just too great, it seems, and many customs officials in China could make a tidy income from bribes.

All of this is frustratingly sad and downright criminal, because part of our human curiosity is a fascination with the way things were all those millions of years ago. Surely the stories that these ancient objects have to tell need to be available both to science and the public, yet single minded collectors blithely ignore the greater goal of public information in search of their own 'Holy Grail'.

Just think long and hard about the attraction of something so steeped in the past that we could never know, before you decide on that centerpiece 'talking point' for your home. In a very real way, you could be stealing history from the rest of us, and you wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you?


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