Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nyctosaurus Update

Back in June, I reported on the sale of one of the famous crested Nyctosaurus specimens. A few weeks ago, Mark from a fossil selling site called DinoStar left this comment:

Not very accurate Matt. Frithiof is a very decent person who is doing a very legal business. Both KJ1 and KJ2 are still in the Brazos museum and are scheduled to be there for the next 2 years. KJ1 was sold to person who is constructing a museum. KJ2 is still for sale. Most private collections are eventually donated to a museum.

First, let me point out for the record I never said that what Frithiof and Mark do is illegal. As long as the fossils were obtained legally in the US, it's perfectly legal to sell them. That doesn't mean it isn't ethically questionable and actively detrimental to science, which I and pretty much 95% of the paleontological community would agree that it is.

Nevertheless, Mark shed some light on the nature of the infamous eBay sale. It's going to someone constructing a museum. What kind of museum or what kind of somebody remains a mystery. There are plenty of dodgy outfits out there calling themselves museums, and specimens in their collections may as well be in an 18th century cabinet of curiosity. A private "museum" is still a private collection unless the museum is somehow in the public trust, so it doesn't eliminate the hesitation most scientists would have of touching one of those specimens. But, as long as it's made freely available for study, this may be good news.

Or not, because even on Mark's own site, fossils currently on display in random small museums are being offered up for sale. For example, for only $19,000, I could become the proud owner of a Confuciusornis specimen with "scant restoration" and what looks to be an amazing anatomically incorrect ornithurine-like tail fan, straight "from China" which does not allow any exportation of fossils under any circumstances (though it does say it's from an "old collection", have the laws changed in 14 years since these birds first started turning up?). If I can buy my very own illegal Chinese pygostylian straight out of a museum's glass case, what's to keep the new owner of KJ1 from trying to cut his losses if the museum doesn't turn a profit?

KJ2, for what it's worth, is still for sale. So if you want to own a nearly one of a kind scientific treasure to hang up in your den, act soon. Maybe the Field Museum can take it off your hands in 50 years once you kick it?


  1. well said!

    can't believe he went to the effort to phone you though... speaks of a guilt complex doesn't it.

  2. Selling rare, significant fossils like these is BS. Pure and simple. What if Anchiornis had been sitting in someone's house? Would we know its feather colors now?

  3. Agreed: the practice may be legal, but that doesn't mean it isn't deplorable. A did a post a couple weeks ago lamenting the sales of fossils (among other issues).

    I read your post that you linked to where you mentioned the Smithsonian article. I remember that article not for it's spotlight on the commercial fossil trade, but for the frightening and heinous comments people left there. I attempted to leave a long winded response, but it feels like it simply falls on deaf ears...