Leading US palaeontologists are calling for a worldwide halt to the sale of vertebrate dinosaur fossils. The booming market for specimens, driven by their popularity with wealthy private collectors, including Hollywood stars, is pushing up prices and putting them out of reach of museums and scientists, they say.
While the art market is organized around the brand name artists, dinosaur sales are all about celebrity species, with a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton fetching up to $ 1
Jerry Smith, an expert in the evolution of freshwater fish in the Department of Zoology at Michigan University, told the Observer : "When specimens go into a private home or collection, our understanding, interpretation or discovery of new information they will never reach the scientific community."
Last year, the US Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (SVP) called on the Parisian auction house Aguttes to cancel the sale inside the Eiffel Tower, which contained just one lot: a 29-foot-long dinosaur of a yet-to-be identified species. The winning bidder paid $ 2.3m for the piece.
Executive members of the company drew attention to the claim that the winning bidder could name the species, calling that assertion "misleading because the naming of the new species is governed by the rules of the International Code of Nomenclature "
" The sale of all fossils is inappropriate, "says Catherine Badgley, former president of the SVP, which represents more than 2,200 international palaeontologists. "Many, especially vertebrate fossils, are rarely common, and it's certainly not the case for dinosaurs. The commodification is inappropriate because it motivates unscrupulous people. "
As A RTnews magazine pointed out last week, we can thank Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Jurassic Park for the surging dinosaur market. The Lost World was released when a 12m-long T rex named Sue was sold at Sotheby's for a record-breaking $ 8.36m to the Field Museum in Chicago.
But the interest has hardly abated. The recent Art Basel Miami included a special project called DeXtinction, organized by two mining companies, Avant Mining and Interprospekt, which included a 120 million-year-old mother and juvenile allosaur and a well-preserved dinosaur egg set from the Cretaceous period, 75 million years ago
According to the New York Post 's Page Six column, the exhibition drew the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio, who along with Nicolas Cage and Russell Crowe has staked out a reputation as a collector
And that's what alarms palaeontologists who fear not only the loss of scholarship, but also the diminution of appreciation for the work that goes into the discovery, excavation and reconstruction of a dinosaur skeleton as they become fashionable objects of home decor  Dinosaur fossil collection comes with risks. In 2013, the 67 million-year-old skull of a tyrannosaurus bataar bought by Nicolas Cage became the focus of an investigation into smuggling. Cage had bought it at an auction in California, beating DiCaprio with a $ 276,000 bid. It was later discovered that the skull was obtained from Eric Prokopi, and a self-described "commercial paleontologist" who had previously pleaded guilty of illegally importing fossils from Mongolia and China
The looted skull was finally returned to Mongolia
All of which still serves to alert working paleontologists, who express concern that institutions are priced out of the market and important specimens lost to private collections. Badgley points to specimens dug from the Green River Formation in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, which has some of the earliest bataar fossil specimens known. "Bat fossils overall are extremely rare, and even if half of this really early period goes into private collections, then that's a huge amount of really important information that's been lost," she says.
Badgley's message to collectors, then,
"There is not a strong link between expensive trophy specimens and an increase in the science of palaeontology. If anything, they are seen more for their rarity and economic value than for their scientific information. It is not necessary for people to become interested in palaeontology by having a unique specimen that's theirs and theirs alone. "
In her experience she says," People are often just as happy with something that's very common. "