Chronicle of Higher Education: Rising Prices for Rare Meteorites and Fossils Hamper Academic Research


Fort Peck, Mont. — J. Keith Rigby, Jr., knows that if the huge Tyrannosaurus rex he is digging out of a barren hill here were ever put up for sale, it would fetch a princely sum.p. Of course, the University of Notre Dame paleontologist would never consider selling his rare fossil, one of the largest tyrannosaurs ever found.p. But the $8.4-million sale of the most complete and best-preserved specimen of a T. rex more than a year ago has fueled a belief in rural communities across America that dinosaur fossils are being sold for millions of dollars. And that has brought nothing but trouble for Mr. Rigby and his academic colleagues.p. In September 1997, a month before Sotheby’s widely publicized auction of the tyrannosaur known as Sue, a local rancher who had heard of the pending sale — an the seven-figure offers — used a backhoe to dig up pieces of Mr. Rigby’s partially excavated find. The rancher was arrested for digging up fossils on federal land, and the bones he took were recovered by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents (The Chronicle, September 26, 1997).p. But that wasn’t the end of Mr. Rigby’s problems. The associate professor of civil engineering and geological sciences has since seen evidence of vandalism at many nearby sites as well.p. During last summer’s excavation season, for example, he and his team of volunteers went back to 30 sites containing dinosaur fossils that they had found the year before. “About 20 had been pilfered,” he says.p. Spurred by visions of big, easy profits, more collectors than ever are illegally digging for dinosaur fossils on federal land, stealing or damaging valuable specimens discovered and awaiting excavation by paleontologists.p. “I know they’re being extracted,” he says. “I know they’re being taken illegally. But the feds do not have the wherewithal to stop it.”p. Meanwhile, landowners who have heard the scuttlebutt in Western towns — that dinosaur bones are worth millions — have begun demanding exorbitant fees, or ownership rights to the bones themselves, from academic paleontologists prospecting on private property.p. “In North and South Dakota, I know private landowners are leasing their land out with fossil leases,” Mr. Rigby says. “As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve hamstrung the professional academic. And it’s not going to stop with dinosaurs. It will go to trilobites, it will go to ammonoids.”p. “Sue changed the rights of access to land for collection,” he adds. “Sue astronomically accelerated the rate of theft. Sue has made dinosaur research very expensive. Unless you have good relationships with local ranchers, you will not have access to land. Sue changed a lot of things, and I don’t think for the better. It’s definitely changed the playing field under which we have to operate.”p. Many of his colleagues agree. “The whole Sue issue has put pressure on federal resources, federal land,” says Louis L. Jacobs, a professor of geological sciences atSouthern Methodist University and former president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which wants stiffer penalties for illegal fossil collecting on federal land.p. Paleontologists aren’t the only scientists facing hardships because of the rising commercial price of the objects they study.p. For example, many geologists say the publicity over the Antarctic meteorite that some think contains evidence of life on Mars has jacked up the prices for Martian meteorites and has increased commercial prospecting for more of them.p. Most common meteorites — ordinary, rocky chondrites — fetch $10 to $20 a gram on the open market. A chunk the size of a thumbnail would cost $100. But some meteorites that have been identified by scientists as blasted from the Martian surface are now going for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a gram. A few are rumored to be on sale for a million dollars or more.p. “That’s a lot money. That puts them out of the reach of researchers,” says Ralph P. Harvey, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Case Western Reserve University and an expert on Martian meteorites. “And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.”p. Mr. Harvey, who heads a National Science Foundation-sponsored program that collects Antarctic meteorites and provides them to researchers at no cost, is worried that the rising prices being asked for Martian meteorites, as well as for other meteorites found in Antarctica, may also be encouraging private expeditions to the frozen continent by commercial meteorite prospectors.p. Scott Borg, a geology-and-geophysics program manager in the N.S.F.‘s Office of Polar Programs, says he has not seen any evidence of commercial prospecting for fossils or meteorites in Antarctica, which is protected from commercial exploitation of mineral resources under a treaty signed by 42 nations. But his agency is not set up to police such activities, he acknowledges. "I don’t believe it’s the intent of the treaty for people to go to Antarctica to collect fossils or meteorites," he says. “However, I have seen an Antarctic meteorite listed for sale in a catalogue for $5,000.”p. Equally disturbing to scientists specializing in meteorites is that the fever for specimens of any kind in recent years has resulted in university geology departments’ experiencing a deluge of visitors, who plead and argue with researchers there to verify that newfound rocks are meteorites, so that they can be sold to the highest bidder.p. “I have people beating down my door with samples,” says Carleton B. Moore, a professor of chemistry and geology at Arizona State University who directs the Center for Meteorite Studies, the largest university collection of meteorites in the world.p. Mr. Moore, who says the intrusions are wasting his time, notes that during one 11-month period, visitors asked him to examine 500 rocks, only one of which turned out to be a meteorite. “The problem is that people are getting the idea that meteorites are worth their weight in gold,” he says.p. “Meteorites right now have an accentuated value,” says Mr. Harvey, of Case Western Reserve. “What’s clear is that a lot of people are trying to cash in. Now everyone thinks that they not only have a meteorite, but a Martian meteorite.”p. Some scientists and commercial collectors think that people will eventually realize that the market for such specimens is limited, and that the sale of Sue the tyrannosaur, and of a few choice meteorites, were exceptions rather than the rule.p. “The market for fossils is for museum specimens and research specimens,” says Peter L. Larson, the commercial collector in Hill City, S.D., who excavated Sue. “And most specimens are not suitable for exhibit. In the long run, I think, things will settle down.”p. “The sale of Sue was exceptional,” says Philip J. Currie, curator of dinosaurs and birds at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, in Drumheller, Alberta. “I don’t think T. rexes will command that kind of money in the future.”p. Nevertheless, insurers have taken notice. Sue’s record-breaking price for a dinosaur fossil has already had an impact on the pocketbooks of some museums, which have been forced to pay more to insure their collections of tyrannosaur and other dinosaur fossils from theft and damage.p. “Since the sale of Sue, we’ve seen our insurance premiums skyrocket,” says Mr. Currie, who estimates that his museum is paying 10 times more than it did the year before to insure its dinosaur collections.p. Ironically, many researchers, including Mr. Currie, view the sale of Sue — named for the woman who first spotted its remains on a ranch near Faith, S.D. — as largely a victory for science.p. The rare dinosaur — with at least 80 per cent of its bones intact, it’s the most anatomically complete specimen of T. rex ever found — was excavated in 1990 by Mr. Larson. He paid the rancher $5,000 for what he thought were the rights to dig it up, and promised to use it as the centerpiece of a new museum and allow scientists to study the remains. But because the land on which the fossil was found was held in trust by the federal government for a local Sioux Indian tribe, a federal judge sent Mr. Larson to prison for collecting the fossils from federal land and awarded Sue to the rancher, who vowed to sell it the highest bidder (The Chronicle, September 15, 1995).p. U.S. paleontologists feared that the fossil would be lost to commercial investors overseas. But the winning bid came from a consortium that included the McDonald’s Corporation, Walt Disney Company, and the California State University System, which turned over the fossil to the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago. (In return for their support, McDonald’s and Disney each will receive life-sized casts of the fossil when it is ready for exhibition, in the spring of 2000. Some students and researchers on California State University campuses already have access to the fossil for their studies.)p. “What’s important is that Sue ended up in a public institution,” says Christopher Brochu, a paleontologist at the Field Museum who is responsible for the preparation of Sue. “Scientifically valuable and unique specimens are most valuable if they’re in a public institution in which they are available in perpetuity.”p. “Science wins, because science has the fossil,” says Mr. Larson, who has since been released after serving two years in a federal prison in Colorado. Still, Mr. Larson, who is president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, in Hill City S.D., says he was “flabbergasted” by the size of the winning bid for Sue. “I think there’s some justified concern in the short term about the price,” because it might encourage landowners to limit the access of legitimate fossil collectors to valuable finds, he says. “The thought right now that all fossils are worth millions may curtail some of the collecting that can be done. Some people have this odd idea of what fossils are really worth. But there could potentially be a lot of good things from this.”p. The sale of Sue not only showed the world “the value of a truly great fossil” compared with the prices of great works of art, he says, but also showed museums a novel way of raising money for their collections. More people now are probably searching for other scientifically important fossils, he adds.p. That’s not much consolation to Mr. Rigby, who last summer had to hire armed guards to patrol his excavation around the clock, and installed a $30,000 security system in the Fort Peck laboratory, where volunteers are extracting T. rex remains from the plaster jackets that protected them in the field.p. “Dinosaur excavation, preparation, warehousing, curation — all of these just became very expensive,” he says. “Now I can’t leave jacketed bones out in the field. They come out the same day they’re jacketed.”p. “It’s been a dose of realism for some people,” concedes Mr. Currie, of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, noting that the increase in the market value of fossils has forced museum curators, as well as paleontologists, to take notice of the commercial market “With the sale of Sue, museums have had a wake-up call. More museums are now thinking actively of having an acquisitions budget, or commercial sponsors, in order to purchase rare fossils.”p. Although he hasn’t had problems with damage to his field sites, Mr. Currie says, he’s noticed more commercial fossil prospectors since Sue’s sale. “It’s been a more active market,” he says.p. On the other hand, Kenneth Carpenter, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Natural History, doubts that the increased commercial activity will be sustained. For one thing, he says, financial problems in Japan have severely dampened sales in one of the major fossil markets. “For a long time, Japan was considered the golden goose for commercial collectors.”p. Fears that Japanese collectors would whisk Sue away, in fact, circulated among American paleontologists before the auction. They were particularly gratified that the winning bid for the best specimen of the two dozen T. rexes ever found — and the one likely to provide the most scientific information about the fearsome dinosaur — came from a U.S. consortium.p. Most U.S. scientists, though, will have to wait another year before they get any information about Sue’s fossilized bones, which are being extracted from the surrounding rock matrix by preparators at two working-laboratory exhibits — one at the Field Museum, financed by McDonald’s, and the other at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in Orlando, Fla.p. Mr. Brochu, the Field Museum paleontologist, says visiting academics are being denied the chance to view Sue’s remains until his monograph describing the dinosaur is completed in 2000. That’s when one life-sized cast of the skeleton is scheduled to go on display at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and two more will begin touring the country in an educational exhibit sponsored by McDonald’s. “We’re trying to keep it in-house as much as possible,” he notes, despite grumbling from stymied paleontologists.p. Mr. Currie isn’t worried, though. “It’s a little unusual for a museum to be as tight-lipped as they are,” he says. “But we know something good is going to come out of it.”

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