Dinosaurs for sale: Science is suffering at the hands of crooks and counterfeiters who deal in fossils

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Fossils are priceless -- invaluable clues about vanished lives whose worth should never be measured in dollars.

But Eric Prokopi made quite a bit of money dealing in them. He recently pled guilty to conspiracy, making false statements to customs officials, illegally importing fossils into the United States and fraudulent transfer of dinosaur bones. He is set to be sentenced in April and faces up to 17 years in prison.

Mr. Prokopi's string of fossil offenses was exposed in the past few months because of a dinosaur that was almost sold for $1 million. His story is one of the most egregious cases of dinosaur rustling in recent years, and it shows just how corrupt and harmful to science the fossil market can be.

The ugly tale began when Texas-based Heritage Auctions put out a catalog for a May 20 event in New York City. The lots included an ankylosaur skull, a troodontid skeleton and the hyped star of the sale, a "75-percent complete" Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton. This tyrannosaur, which roamed Mongolia about 70 million years ago, was comparable in size and ferocity to its famous cousin Tyrannosaurus rex.

For years, paleontologists have watched as significant specimens have gone from field sites to wealthy fossil enthusiasts. Some researchers have even had dinosaurs stolen right out from under them, finding their carefully-excavated quarries turned to shambles littered with cigarette butts, booze bottles and broken bones.

There are legitimate dealers who abide by laws on collecting and selling fossils, but you'll always find questionable specimens if you visit a fossil or mineral show. And what's on display is only the tip of the iceberg. The real action at these shows takes place in private hotel rooms, where sellers save their fanciest and most illicit deals for customers they feel they can trust.

Countries around the world have passed laws that make it difficult to sell dinosaur and other fossils legally, but dealers keep finding ways around them. Even dealers who keep their noses clean almost never contribute anything to science -- they treat fossils as petrified postage stamps to be hoarded, traded and sold.

Whoever had collected the Tarbosaurus had stripped away almost everything of scientific importance: how the bones were scattered, how they were cleaned and reassembled, what other fossils were nearby. But paleontologists were certain that the dinosaur came from Mongolia.

China and Mongolia strictly regulate who is allowed to collect fossils. There was no legal route by which the dinosaur could have ended up in a New York City auction. Days before it was set to be sold, paleontologists and the president of Mongolia objected to the auction. According to Mongolian heritage laws, any recovered bones must ultimately rest in an approved Mongolian institution.

Heritage Auctions said it trusted the dealer and whined that it was too close to the date of the auction to do anything about the complaints. Lawyers working with the Mongolian government demanded that the auction be halted until the provenance of the skeleton could be settled.

The auction went ahead. The final price of the Tarbosaurus was just over $1 million, but the unknown buyer couldn't simply walk off with it. Investigations continued and paleontologists confirmed that the tyrannosaur must have been uncovered in Mongolia. More than that, what was billed as a nearly complete individual animal turned out to be made of several different dinosaurs.

By June 22, Mr. Prokopi was identified as the dealer, and the skeleton had been seized by the U.S. government. Though the dinosaur is still bound by red tape, it soon may be returned home to Mongolia.

Sadly, the other dinosaur fossils in the same auction were sold without much attention. Still, inspired by the controversy, paleontologist Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London halted the auction of a Tarbosaurus leg at Christie's around the same time. Mr. Barrett had noticed the leg in the window of the auction house. It was pulled from the sale.

As for Mr. Prokopi, his defense crumbled as it became clear that he had tried to hide the dinosaur by lying about what kind of bones he had and claiming the fossils were collected legally in England. Customs violations were the smuggler's undoing.

We can't learn anything from a Tarbosaurus that stands in a millionaire's mansion. And contrary to what you might expect, relatively abundant dinosaurs like Tarbosaurus are important exactly because so many have been found. By comparing multiple specimens, cutting up bones to look at their microstructure or drilling geochemical samples from them, researchers can get a better idea of how dinosaurs grew up, how they varied as individuals and other intricate details about dinosaur biology.

Dinosaur bones are not just static objects to be left on the shelf. As paleontologist Jack Horner put it in his book "Dinosaur Lives," "A dinosaur out of context is like a character without a story. Worse than that, the character suffers from amnesia."

The international market for fossils damages science in other ways as well. Some sellers create forgeries and chimeras. The croc-snouted dinosaur Irritator got its name because a fossil dealer glued extraneous bones to the dinosaur's skull to make it look more complete than it was.

Paleontologists were able to catch that fake, but researchers can be fooled by fancy fossils with murky back stories. Even the venerable National Geographic gave undue attention to a faked fossil.

In 1999, the magazine heralded "Archaeoraptor" as a significant stage in the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. The animal seemed to fit within the pattern of authentic feathered dinosaurs that were just beginning to be described in peer-reviewed literature.

Eventually it became clear that "Archaeoraptor" had been illegally exported from China and was a composite of at least two fossils. After an internal investigation, National Geographic admitted that it was a fraud.

Even so, the hype around the controversial chimera gave ammunition to creationists and those who stubbornly insist that birds cannot be dinosaurs. Authentic, well-studied fossils have confirmed over and over again that birds are just one kind of dinosaur, but fundamentalists still trot out "Archaeoraptor" to insist that the scientific community cannot be trusted. As this episode demonstrates, black market fossils can hurt science in an unfortunate array of ways.

I understand the urge to have a dinosaur to call your own. I've got one myself: a skull of the long-necked, stout Jurassic sauropod Apatosaurus. But mine is a cast, which I found at an estate sale. Such alternatives let dinosaur fans have a piece of prehistory without depriving science.

Commercial collectors could do the right thing by working with professional paleontologists to responsibly excavate fossils for public institutions, with a small finder's fee and rights to produce casts going to the commercial dealer. Of course, this would require private landowners and commercial collectors to stop seeing giant dollar signs in dinosaur bones.

Commercial collectors argue that if they don't dig up fossils, many may be destroyed due to erosion. And it's true that there are not enough professional paleontologists to excavate every dinosaur that starts peeking out of the ground. But it would be better to let a Triceratops skull fall to pieces than have that specimen mangled by amateurs who ignore basic scientific data collection and then try to sell that skull to private buyers, hiding it away from researchers and fueling a market that makes significant specimens inaccessible.

There is an opportunity cost to digging up one dinosaur and not another, but it's better to lose a few in the process of rigorous science than to wind up with a jumble of dinosaurs of questionable provenance.


Brian Switek is the author of "My Beloved Brontosaurus" and "Written in Stone." He blogs about prehistoric wonders at Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking and Wired Science's Laelaps. He wrote a longer version of this article for Slate.


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