“We avoid [provenance problems] by systematically asking for the legal file of the dinosaur,” said Mickeler. “In this file must be the title deeds of the land, the excavation authorizations, the paid mineral right, the quarry map, the bones map, the export papers showing the customs taxes paid. You thereby verify that all its constituent bones come from the same excavation site, so it is not a ‘fake.’”
Airtight paperwork is all the more important because of how international the fossil market has become, and how inconsistent laws and their enforcement can be from one country to the next.
“A lot of the fossils that come on the market are from countries like China, Argentina, and Brazil that have very desirable types of fossils, including dinosaurs, and even though these countries have regulations on paper, somehow stuff always gets out,” Sues said. “You go to any major mineral show and there are dinosaur skeletons, or woolly mammoths, or woolly rhinoceroses—beautiful skeletons that get out of these countries. So obviously, the law and the enforcement of the law are quite different.”
The market’s appetite for dinosaur fossils can make enforcement difficult, though Sues noted that Germany, France, and increasingly the U.S. are very rigorous in tracking and policing specimens’ movements. The recent uptick in the dinosaur market has also made it harder for natural history museums and other scientific institutions to acquire important specimens, both at dig sites—where commercial fossil dealers can offer property owners much larger sums in order to dig up their land—and at auction.
“Natural history museums, unlike art museums, generally don’t have acquisitions funds,” said Sues. “So unless they find some person who’s willing to buy [a fossil] on behalf of the museum and then donate it to the museum—and there are very few people who’ll do that—you really are priced out of that market.”
So what are the odds of another fossil like Sue coming to market, and will museums be able to compete for it?
“It will depend entirely on the condition of it, Sue really is a spectacular specimen,” said Hyslop. But, he added, “there’s really good material that’s still available to collect.”
For Sues, it will depend on how creative natural history museums are willing to get. “Crowd-funding probably wouldn’t generate enough money for that purpose, but I think a partnership with a potent commercial sponsor is definitely something that one can look at,” he said. “Commercial collecting will always be here, and we just have to figure out ways that paleontologists and commercial collectors can collaborate to make sure that particularly exceptional specimens end up ultimately in a publicly accessible repository.”