Behind the Headlines: Fossil Feuds
Should natural history relics go to highest bidder?

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

27 SEPTEMBER 00 | It cost Dick Spight, a retired Point Richmond businessman, $167,500 to buy back a shale slab with the imprint of what looked like a large dragonfly from Butterfields auction house in San Francisco August 27.

And that was a steal.

Its seller, Alfred Siefker, first offered the specimen to major museums for $3 million to $5 million. Spight reclaimed the relic at far less than the Butterfields auction guide asking price of $250,000 to $350,000.

The Late Triassic fossil is in reality the only known specimen of Icarosaurus siefkeri, a winged reptile that lived along the lakes of what is now northern New Jersey 200 million years ago. It is the latest fossil to go on the auction block, much to the dismay of paleontologists, who want to preserve that slice of prehistory for the public.

"People get dollar signs in their eyes when they find these rare specimens," said Mark Goodwin, principal museum scientist at Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology. "What they don't consider is all of the scientific information and value is in danger of being lost forever."

Goodwin is familiar with this kind of controversy. Four years ago he became involved in an FBI investigation to find a lower jaw of Tyrannosaurus rex stolen from the museum. The jawbone had changed hands several times and was sold by a commercial fossil dealer in Germany to a private citizen; it was eventually recovered and returned. The jawbone had originally been found on federal land in eastern Montana by a team of Berkeley paleontologists.

"Although fossil collecting and commercial sales are legal in many countries, the U.S. differs in that we do not have any laws to protect fossils found on private land from being sold commercially, improperly collected, or denied access for scientific research," Goodwin said.

"Fossils found on private land in the U.S. are currently considered part of the overlying soil and are the property of the land owner," said Goodwin. "There are no laws to protect all of the scientific information and knowledge that we could gain as we study the history of life on earth, which absolutely depends on access and protection of these fossils. I don't think our natural history heritage should be sold to the highest bidder."

Neither did Spight. So he sought the advice of paleontologist Kevin Padian, a professor and curator in Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology, on how to return the rare fossil to science. The two eventually decided to try to secure it for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it had originally resided in 1961. There it stayed until its finder demanded it back from the museum in 1989 so that he could sell it.

"Dick did a wonderful thing by giving it back to the museum," said Padian. "He wanted guidance on what to do with the fossil and thought it was awful that it might be sold and wind up on someone's mantle. Much to his credit, he got me involved, and I went with him to Butterfields to talk to their representatives and lawyers about ownership and title of the fossil, and the logistics of returning it to the museum. "

At the auction, in late August, Padian and Spight watched as the bidding for Icarosaurus siefkeri began. The starting price was $80,000 and went up to $150,000 before Spight laid claim to it. The final price included a $17,500 buyer's premium. Its seller, Alfred Siefker, whose name the fossil bears, was shocked to hear that it sold for so little.

But Padian, who works with one of the largest collections of fossils of any university campus in the world, couldn't have cared less.

"These are things that can't be manufactured or made," he said. "They belong in museums. Our shame as a country is that we don't have laws like other countries do to restrict the sale and export of valuable specimens like this."

He and others would like to see laws passed that help to quell the fossil demand by making it illegal to export valuable vertebrate fossils from the United States, and that reinforce the sanctity of public lands against commercial fossil exploration.

"There's a reason why commercial fossil dealers in the United States and abroad come to the American West to collect," Goodwin concurred. "No protections exist for antiquities on private land, and the deterrents and criminal penalties for illegal collecting on public land are minimal.

"It's time to open up the public debate on legislation to safeguard artifacts, to introduce stiffer penalties for those who take them from public land and to make sure artifacts aren't pillaged on private land," Goodwin said. "Our country is the only one in the world without protections to conserve antiquities and fossils on private land for the public trust. We protect historical buildings. It's time we thought about protecting our natural history as well."

Behind the Headlines is an occasional Berkeleyan feature where campus experts examine issues in the news. To suggest a story idea, contact the editor at or 643-8012.


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