(A look at the debate)
Commercial fossil shows often generate heated debates between amateur collectors, dealers and professional paleontologists.  Opinions on these shows range from 100% AGAINST THEM to 100% FOR THEM (and everywhere in between).  There is considerable misinformation at the extremes of this debate.  Most of these arguments are centered around a piece of truth, but also contain misleading or even completely false information.  In an effort to address this misinformation, arguments from each side are explored below, along with opinions in the middle ground.  The goal here is to objectively evaluate all points in this debate.  There should be some common ground where all parties can reach their diverse objects.  Nearly everyone involved is driven to this field by a love of fossils and the history of Earth.  In this article, I've attempted to argue all sides and present a common middle ground that I hope everyone can agree upon.  If you feel that I've stated something incorrect or omitted relevant information, please contact me.  I would love to hear your opinions.
Disclaimer: This site is owned and operated by a volunteer in paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS).  Pages such as this represent my personal opinions, not necessarily the views or opinions of the DMNS.


"These shows should not happen.  Valuable scientific information and specimens are being lost forever by falling into private collections.  Completely new species are being sold to the highest bidder which leaves a gap in the scientific record."

Unfortunately, this is often true.  There are many important scientific specimens sold at these shows.  But, there are far more fossils sold which yield little new information of scientific importance.  More on this below.
"Because these fossils are collected just for sale, no effort is made to thoroughly document the quarry locality, geologic formations or any other scientifically important data that can be gathered from the site by professional paleontologists."
This is true in most cases.  Locality data can be as important as the fossils themselves.  Fossils excavated for the commercial market often come with no stratigraphic information other than the name of the formation and a very broad age frame like 'Cretaceous'.  A more thorough study of the locality could provide important data such as: more precise time frame; environment/climate data; adjacent fossil animals and plants; and geologic information.  There have been a few cases where commercial operators have attempted to collect and maintain locality information, but at times, it has come back to haunt them.  The Black Hills Institute is one example.  They were collecting detailed locality data on a number of fossil specimens.  However, in the FBI raid of May 14, 1992, much of this information was seized and used against the Black Hills Institute.  So, dealers may be further discouraged from maintaining this information.


"These shows are a good way to maintain interest in paleontology in the general public.  They are very educational and provide a means for amateur collectors to obtain 'treasures' for their personal collections."

This is true.. to some extent.  Even if attendees do not purchase anything, these shows can be very educational.  The dealer may even be the person who excavated the fossils, so one can learn a lot in discussions about the fossils.  For example, one can find out: a general location and possibly the formation where they were discovered; what else was found in the area; hardness of the matrix; method of recovery; age; etc.  However, there are also many dealers that no virtually nothing about what they are selling.  They simply paid a foreign farmer to collect the fossils, which are at times bought by the pound or kilo.  So, when asked, the dealer may not know anything about the specimen or may even make up information to ensure the sale.  On the other side of the transaction, the BUYER may just purchase the fossil because "it's cool" or "it looks pretty" without asking (or caring) about the scientific background.
"The dealers wouldn't sell anything that is scientifically important."
This is very often false.  American dealers operate under the Code of Ethics of the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers (AAPS) which states that members will 'strive to place specimens of unique scientific interest into responsible hands for study, research, and preservation'.  However, this is a Code which only applies to American dealers and one which is not followed very often.  Clearly, fossils of great scientific importance or being sold at these shows.  The dealers are highly motivated to do so because of the high prices they fetch.  Prices for common fossils are often so small that one wonders how they can even be transported around the world, let alone make a profit.
"Scientists don't have the time to recover all these fossils, therefore dealers provide a market between diggers and the public which allows these fossils to be recovered."
Partially true.  There are probably many more commercial quarries around the world than there are operations run by scientific institutions.  However, don't underestimate the institutions.  Every year museums, universities and other institutions are working around the globe recovering countless fossils.  Sure, if there were no commercial operations, recovery of fossils would occur at a slower rate, but is this a good argument for the shows?  This leads us to the next part of this argument...
"Most things would erode away to nothing if they weren't recovered by private diggers and sold by dealers."
False, in most cases.  Most of these fossils are millions of years old and have been preserved by the earth for a period of time longer than man has roamed the planet.  Whether they are collected this year or a thousand years from now, most will still be there and still be in approximately the same condition.  However, there are some specimens where the erosion argument is a valid one.  Some poorly fossilized specimens that have been exposed may indeed begin to erode.  For example, younger bones which are exposed to the forces of erosion will deteriorate and lose not only their scientific features of importance, but may completely disappear.  As fossil plants get closer to the surface (through erosion or construction), they quickly deteriorate.  But, these examples are probably the exception.
"Paleontology as an academic science is dwindling.  No major universities even offer a paleontology degree anymore."
False.  Paleontology has almost always been a specialization in another degree of science such as geology or biology.  The level of interest in paleontology is arguably on the rise.  The level of interest in dinosaurs by children has probably never been greater than it is today.  In some people, this interest carries forward to adult life where they pursue higher education in paleontology; collect fossils; read about earth's natural history; etc.
"The sale of unimportant fossils can actually fund the excavation and research of other scientifically important specimens."
This is rarely true.  What is more often true is that the sale of unimportant fossils may fund the recovery of more important fossils that ALSO go up for sale at shows.  The only example I can think of where this argument may be true is the work at the Black Hills Institute.

There are many amateurs and professionals who fall somewhere in between the above two polarized positions.  Could it be that certain views in both of the above arguments are true?  Now, the middle ground will be addressed.

Isn't it true that the vast majority of the fossils sold at these shows are not of much scientific value?  There are thousands of common invertebrates, plants and even vertebrates sold that would likely not yield any new informtion.  If it were not for these shows, private collectors could not fulfill their lifelong passion.  It provides a living for many dealers.  And, it maintains a level of public interest in paleontology which is important to everyone.

The real issue is how to give professional paleontologist the opportunity to study the relatively few specimens of true scientific importance.
Clearly, there are important fossils going into private collections that should be studied by professionals.  These are mostly in the vertebrate class, but there are examples in all fossil classes.  This should NOT be happening.  Some have argued that it is a lack of knowledge on the part of the dealer - that they simply don't realize they are selling something important.  However, this is rarely true.  The dealers know the importance of the specimen as evidenced by the high price tag attached to it.  The sale of these fossils is more likely due to simple greed, poor economic conditions or just poor ethics.  Many dealers come from poor countries where the need to provide for their families outweighs any scientific or legal concerns.  China, Morocco and Argentina are good examples where dealers may be in this position.  However, there are plenty of dealers coming from developed countries that have poor ethics and are motivated by greed.  Or, is it just a financial means to stay involved in a field they love?  You decide.  At the 2002 Denver show, one specimen was labeled 'Possible New Species'.  The dealer was from Canada, not a place known for economic struggles.  And, it is obvious they had knowledge that the specimen was important by its label and high price tag.

I take digital pictures of fossils at all the shows I attend.  None of the dealers seem to mind, with the exception of dealers from China.  They will immediately run over and say, "NO PICTURES".  Why is this?  ...because China has very strict laws governing the export of fossils.  Chinese law now dictates that only local government agencies may obtain fossils excavated within the country.  Yet, Chinese dealers are at these shows selling many types of scientifically important specimens.  China is fast becoming one of the most renown areas of scientific discovery in the world.  New species are being found at arguably the fastest rate on the globe - and they are extremely well preserved.  New species of birds, dinosaurs and reptiles being recovered on a regular basis in parts of China.  Profit motives are placing these fossils in the hands of amateur collectors.  It's my opinion that these dealers say "No Pictures" because they don't want any evidence of their activities at the shows.

There is no good solution to this problem.  A few ideas for partial solutions are listed below.

Show 'Police':  Educated paleontologists such as university professors and museum staff should have a large presence at these shows.  The organizers of the show should appoint volunteers from the professional community to oversee exhibits and report dealers that are selling scientifically important specimens.  Of course, this is highly subjective and would be a source of great conflict, but something of this nature should be occurring at the shows.  Dealers attending the show would have to sign an agreement restricting sale of these specimens and agree to remove them from display on request by the 'show police'.  This solution is probably not feasible because there are very few great paleontologist in the world - far fewer than there are commercial dealers.  And, these scientists have very busy professions that often don't permit them the luxury of attending these shows.

Purchases by Professionals & Institutions:  Many fossils on display in museums around the country were purchased from private parties.  This happens all the time and it could be happening more frequently at these fossil shows.  There is a great deal of competition to keep prices low which presents great buying opportunities not only for private collectors, but for institutions as well.  However, as with any commodity, the price competition is on the common fossils.  The rare fossils command higher prices - often out of reach of scientific budgets.  So, the museums would likely only be able to purchase common fossils to complete their public exhibits.

Sale Log: What about a sale log where willing purchaser's information could be kept for possible future requests by scientists to study a certain specimen.  This would be great if it worked, but it's possible that few would be willing to provide this information... but, a few is better than none.

Collaboration Projects:  Could it be that that dealers AND scientific organizations could BOTH meet their their goals with minimal impact to either party?  A project will begin soon on with this lofty goal as the focus.  I will be working with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS), private collectors, dealers, universities and other museums in an attempt to demonstrate that collaboration is possible.  I will attempt to solicit fossil specimens, digital images and locality data to be included in an upcoming scientific publication.  The goal is to allow all parties to contribute to science with little impact to their personal objectives.  Wouldn't many amatueurs and dealers love to contribute to science if they could be recognized in a book?  Wouldn't the value of their specimens increase at fossil shows if it was properly identified and feature in a book?  The key criteria in the success of this project is timely evaluaton and return (or purchase) of the specimens and appropriate recognition.  I intend to use as the platform for this undertaking, along with signficant time dedicated to contact potential contributors.  STAY TUNED FOR THE "GREEN RIVER PROJECT" ON PALEOCURRENTS.COM!a

      Shouldn't ethics and a responsibility to science drive the important and rare fossils into the hands of qualified paleontologists for research?  Well, yes.  However, responsibility and ethics are very subjective and depend almost entirely on the individual.  There's a broad range of situations that people face, as discussed in the examples below.

      Example 1: A poor farmer in China probably feels that it is more 'ethical' and 'responsible' for him to provide for his family.  So, he sells fossils to commercial dealers.  It's easy for someone who is not in this situation to say this is wrong.  What would you do in his shoes?  It's safe to say that these fossils do not find their way to research institutions.  As discussed later, international fossil laws tend to keep the 'black market' alive, yet keep museums and universities from obtaining fossils originating in many restricted countries.

      Example 2: There are many groups involved in commercial excavation of fish and leaf fossils from the Green River formation in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.  These groups often sell their fossils directly to the public at fossil shows or may sell to another commercial dealer.  The groups excavating these fossils may recover 5,000 common fish before finding something truly rare like a bat.  Should the dealer be happy to just make money off the sale of the 5,000 fish?  Should they donate the bat to a scientific institution for study and display?  This would be the 'ethical' and 'responsible' act.  But, this isn't likely to happen because the bat fetches a much higher price at the fossil shows.  It may sell for 10, 20 or 50 times as much as the other common fossils recovered from the site.  So, this rare fossil would probably never find its way to a museum.  And, a museum couldn't afford to spend a large percentage of their departmental budget to acquire it.  Also, a museum couldn't afford to use their manpower & resources to excavate thousands of fossils in an attempt to find the rare bat.  So, it is out of reach.  One amicable solution to this dilemma would be to loan the bat to a scientific institution for study, photographing and temporary display.  Then, the specimen could be returned to the dealer for its ultimate sale.  This could satisfy both parties, to some extent, will little downside - the dealer would temporarily miss out on the profit from its sale; while the museum may not benefit from all the locality data had they recovered the specimen themselves.

      Example 3: There are examples of individuals with sterling ethics and a strong responsibility to science.  One such paleo enthusiast  discovered a dinosaur on his private property.  He personally excavated what turned out to be an Ankylosaurus.  If sold, this specimen would have significantly altered the person's financial position.  However, they donated the dinosaur to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.  The museum thoroughly researched and repaired this specimen and it is now on exhibit in Prehistoric Journey at the DMNS.  This is a rare example.  Land owners are now aware of the huge sums that dinosaurs can fetch, as shown in the controversy surrounding the Tyrannosaurus Rex named Sue.

      Example 4: The Patagonia region of Argentina is known worldwide for its wonderfully preserved fossil pine cones.  They are highly sought after at fossil shows and command prices of many hundreds of dollars.  Probably the leading dealer in this trade is Ulrich Dernback of Germany.  However, as will be discussed below, Argentina has strict laws prohibiting the export of fossils.  Dernback not only exports and sells these fossil pine cones from Patagonia, but he's published a book on all the wonderful fossils that he's exported.  The book is titled "Araucaria: The Petrified Araucarias from the Cerro Cuadrado, Argentina" [1].  In the book, some of the local farmers ("gaucho's") are even featured.  Dernbach states that before they departed from Argentina, they were "carefully wrapping our cones and petrified wood in our laundry to protect them from curious eyes."  I have not yet researched when Argentina's fossil laws went into effect, but this appears to be a blatant example of ignoring the law.  What's unique in this case is that Dernbach readily admits in the book that these fossil pine cones are "extremely valuable for scientists" and they have been worked on by many museums and universities and are on display in museums around the world.  Paleobotanists in Argentina even participated in Dernbach's excavations.  I'm personally guilty because I possess three Araucarias from Cerro Cuadrado and a signed copy of Dernbach's book!  I was unaware of Argentina's laws when these were purchased from Mr. Dernbach at the 2001 Tuscon Fossil Show.  It appears that we're all a little guilty with respect to fossil laws!

      Much of the above discussion addresses ethics and responsibility to science.  The other side of this controversy is the law.  Some countries have laws strictly prohibiting the export of fossils.  This applies to fossils for sale and exports to scientific organizations attempting to study them.  Examples of these countries are listed below.  However, there are thousands of fossils for sale at rock shops and shows all over the world.  How does this happen?  Well, there isn't anyone to enforce the laws.  Argentina may believe that their fossils are a national resource of scientific importance, but when it comes to enforcement of laws, there may be other important criminal violations to pursue (e.g. murders or robbery) than the sale of a fossil pine cone.  Argentina is in a dire economic conditions and most people are more worried about feeding their families than old pine cones leaving the country.

      Examples of Countries/Provinces with Laws Prohibiting the Export of Fossils include:

      Ironically, these fossil laws actually keep more significant fossils out of reach from scientific institutions.  There will always be a 'black market' for these fossils, yet the policies of museums and universities will not allow them to obtain fossils known to have come from countries prohibiting fossil export.

      In addition, museums cannot afford the truly rare specimens at fossil shows.  For example, a purchase of a $400,000 Ankylosaurus at a show would consume many years of budget for an entire paleontology department.  However, going out in the field to excavate one with staff and volunteers can be economically feasible.

      No enforcement of international fossils laws:

    In the end, these fossils shows represent a finely tuned capitalist system at work.  There are clearly problems presented to science by this system, but it also has some benefits.  Do the "pros" outweigh the "cons"?  That is for you to decide personally.  But, imagine an alternative - we could live in a highly restrictive country where these fossils would never been found, excavated, studied, documented or displayed.  We could all be naive to the natural history of the planet.  There could be a complete lack of interest and general void of knowledge.

    It is sad that this system allows dealers with poor ethics and apathy towards the law to operate.  We do need better policing to protect the scientifically valuable specimens.

What are your views on the great fossil debate?  I'd love to hear them and will likely post all views on a future feedback page.


1. Dernbach, Ulrich, "Araucaria: The Petrified Araucarias from the Cerro Cuadrado, Argentina", D'Oro-Verlag, Germany, 1992, pp. 9, 43
[Created 09/23/2002]
[Last Updated: 11/28/2002]