Monday, November 18, 2013

No Sale! Science Trumps Money in San Diego

The San Diego Natural History Museum today lowered the gavel on several fossils from their collection that were up for auction and science was declared the winning bidder. The museum released an official statement announcing cancellation of the sale scheduled for 19 November. The news comes only days after several notable paleontologists sharply criticized the museum's administration upon the original announcement of the proposed sale.

The saga really begins on the heels of this year's Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting, when outrage, disappointment, and other negative emotions that sound dramatic were directed at Peter Larson for his poster that was perceived to be advertising an upcoming auction. (My previous post addresses this directly.) Larson's "dueling dinosaurs" were hogging the spotlight, but a statement from SVP on 13 November brought the world's attention to the fossils SDNHM had planned to sell alongside Larson's research subjects. (For more on the auction, have a browse at the sale catalog. I saved it to Google Drive for posterity.)

After the SVP statement, facts about the sale quickly came to the fore. SDNHM had made arrangements with Bonhams of New York to auction a total of twelve fossils collected by Charles Sternberg, including a Xiphactinus skeleton and a Chasmosaurus skull. (The skull was quickly removed from the sale to be sent to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.)

The Council was clearly dismayed by news of the impending auction.

Many were shocked that a museum would willingly sell off fossils with such historical and scientific value, especially considering the amount of negative publicity the commercial fossil trade has received recently. Open calls were made for letters and emails to SDNHM, and the paleo-blogging community took to the web in protest. (I made a brief mention of the sale in my last post, but I was half finished when I heard the news. Some shoehorning was necessitated.) Brian Switek was very thorough in his breakdown of the auction and the shortsighted logic of the museum administrators in his post at Laelaps.

Following the initial firestorm, the museum administration made an attempt to publicly explain their decision on their official blog, but they only instigated further criticism. The idea that fossils previously used for scientific research were deemed expendable by administrative personnel boggled minds, as indicated in a letter penned by Dr. Laura Wilson of Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

The most interesting reaction to the proposed sale, as well as other fossils currently on the auction block, comes from Dr. Thomas Carr of Carthage College. In a recent blog post, he proposed that the US federal government should exercise their right of eminent domain to forcefully purchase all of the fossils to ensure they remain in the public trust.

While I appreciate the idea and admire Dr. Carr's original thinking, I could never let myself believe that US government officials would even attempt such a move considering the morally driven partisanship. Even if they did, as a former employee of the United States, I can speak to the molasses-like haste of decision makers in Congress. (I've got a great story about my veteran's education benefits that is actually not great at all.) The fossils would be dust before funding finally got approved.

Nothing says Dinovember like a T. rex, Parasaurolophus, and Triceratops playing Texas Hold'em with can tabs. (Dealer not pictured.)

Despite the chaos of the past few days, the world of paleontology has achieved a notable victory and can let out a collective sigh of relief. There are more auctions and bigger fossils that are likely to disappear from science in the near future and commercial traders are constantly digging for the next big sell. This is a never-ending war filled with small battles, but every win is huge. For tonight, let's all of us in the scientific community celebrate accordingly. Don't drink and drive.

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