Friday, June 5, 2009

Tracy Ford and the Kingdom of the Embellished Skull

It's a catch-phrase for Indiana Jones and a rallying cry for paleontologists and archaeologists alike...

"It belongs in a museum!"

Unfortunately, there are plenty of private collectors out there who don't heed Indy's sage-like advice. Many important fossils are lost every year to private individuals who rarely disclose specimens to experts for study. Even if specimens in private hands are offered to experts, many refuse to publish on them, partly because they see it as simply unethical and partly because most important provenance data (what rocks formation the bones came from, etc.) has already been lost by that point.

Take the case of the Mongolian tyrannosaurid Alioramus. This dinosaur is officially known from only a single decently preserved skull, though several more complete skulls are known to exist in private collections, making them all but worthless to science unless the collectors bequeath them to museums in their wills later on. Mongolia is notorious for losing specimens to collectors, and apparently many, many excellent, potentially very important finds and new species will never become known to the public for this reason.

Back to Alioramus. One such 'lost' skull was recently sold at auction in New York to an undisclosed buyer for over US$200,000 (story here). Photos of this specimen were posted to the Dinosaur Mailing List after the auction finished (see DML post here for links to all the photos. One is reproduced above).

This seems like a tragic sale, because the skull appears to be beautifully complete, so it would be quite a loss for it to end up under a glass case in some millionaire's bedroom. I say would, because it looks like the joke's on him or her...

Often ignored in the sale of private specimens inaccessible to science is that they're inaccessible to science. That means that embellishments often added to black market fossils can't be caught by trained eyes. Now, at first glance, even most experts wouldn't notice the enhancements to the skull pictured above without studying the fossil up close. Enter Tracy Ford: the original armchair paleontologist, he has made a name for himself in offering a subscription-based online dinosaur database, as well as producing numerous publications on dinosaur life anatomy, books on how to draw dinosaurs, etc. Ford is also an active member of DinoForum, and noticed something very familiar about the auctioned-off Alioramus skull. He'd seen it before, at the infamous Tuscon Gem and Mineral Show. Tuscon is a Mecca for fossil collectors and under-the-table deals on shady specimens. The show regularly attracts even pros, who can often come across amazing new finds.

Ford had seen this very skull at the show, and, as he reported on DinoForum:
  • "I can saw with total confindance that this specimen is more than 80 percent reconstructed. The reason why I know this is that it was at the Tucson Rock Show about 3 or 4 years ago and I took several photo's of the specmen, which at the time was just the premaxilla, maxilla and tip of the dentary. Nether of the bones complete. So, just to get it sold they reconstructed it into its current state. Not as good as they claim it to be."
Others were astounded that someone would pay over 200 grand for a specimen that hadn't been checked for reconstruction or forgery. "Completing" partial skulls is common even in museums when prepping specimens for display, but you'd reckon this would significantly decrease the value of a specimen at auction, and I'd be very surprised if the buyer knew that only the ends of the jaws were composed of real bone. Here's a photo Ford took of the specimen years ago in Tuscon. Worth $200,000? You be the judge.

1 comment:

  1. A Nonny Mouse:
    Please try to keep the commentary above 3rd grade insult level yeah? This isn't YouTube.