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Smuggled Ichthyosaurs, Revisited, ‘Nothing fishy’ About eBay Purchase is Claimed

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Oxytropidoceras

There is a followup article about the Smuggled Ichthyosaurs. It is:

 

‘Nothing fishy’: Canadian owners of ancient fossils repatriated

to China deny any wrongdoing by Douglas Quan, National post

January 17, 2017

http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/nothing-fishy-canadian-owners-of-ancient-fossils-repatriated-to-china-deny-any-wrongdoing

 

The original post is:

 

Smuggled Ichthyosaur Returned to China by Canada at:

http://www.thefossilforum.com/index.php?/topic/71237-smuggled-ichthyosaur-returned-to-china-by-canada/

 

Yours,

 

Paul H.

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Canadawest

This is a positive story all around.  

 

Good to know that there are folks who are vigilant in not accepting the new llegal trade of a country's heritage.

 

Everyone in the Alberta fossil community knows Wendy.  As a teen she found dinosaur nests on her family's ranch and helped with excavation, etc.   I'm surprised she made this purchase as she has worked in paleontology and knows better.

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Fruitbat

Personally...I find very little 'positive' in the whole affair.  I'm tired of the 'experts' referring to the 'ham-fisted amateurs' who are responsible for depriving the world of fossils that would likely have eroded into useless powder if they had waited for somebody with official clearance to excavate them.  Not that I am suggesting that anyone deal with illegally-obtained fossils, but the old argument about 'amateurs' messing things up for everybody is beginning to wear a bit thin!

 

Okay...that's enough of my ranting...for now!

 

-Joe

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Canadawest
4 hours ago, Fruitbat said:

Personally...I find very little 'positive' in the whole affair.  I'm tired of the 'experts' referring to the 'ham-fisted amateurs' who are responsible for depriving the world of fossils that would likely have eroded into useless powder if they had waited for somebody with official clearance to excavate them.  Not that I am suggesting that anyone deal with illegally-obtained fossils, but the old argument about 'amateurs' messing things up for everybody is beginning to wear a bit thin!

 

Okay...that's enough of my ranting...for now!

 

-Joe

 

Not sure what this has to do with that.  These are fossils from China. China has a right to regulate its heritage as does every country.  I see this as positive.  We in Alberta regulate the export of our fossils.  I assume that you Americans are also concerned about your heritage. I shouldn't be able to go to Ebay and buy a stolen copy of the Declaration of Independence or a dino found on federal property in South Dakota.  Why wouldnt it be positive to have these returned to the people of the United States?   It's  a positive that China wants to protect its fossil heritage, that Canada agrees and has returned Chinese property to China. We in Canada would also request that stolen property be returned. 

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Doctor Mud
1 hour ago, Fruitbat said:

As I said...I'm not advocating the purchase of illegally-obtained fossils and I agree with a nation's right to protect anything it pleases (regardless of the fact that fossils, once exposed to the elements, have a relatively short survival time).  My issue is based on this:

 

 

 

I wonder if Don Henderson has ever pondered the scientific value of a fossil that never gets excavated at all!

 

I have never been an advocate of commercial sales of fossils on a large scale and I do concede that there are some commercial (and private) collectors that might deserve the characterization of 'ham-fisted' but I have known hundreds (if not thousands) of private collectors who are every bit as talented in excavation, meticulous in preparation and data-driven as their 'expert' counterparts.  After all...doesn't that description fit many of the esteemed members of The Fossil Forum?

 

It is the notion that private collectors lack the skills and dedication to properly excavate, prepare and document an important fossil that particularly irks me.  In addition, I also am troubled (based on a couple of personal experiences) by what often happens to these scientifically-valuable fossils when they ARE donated to a museum or institute of higher learning.  Often they are filed away in a dusty basement somewhere, never again to see the light of day.  I have also (again...based on personal experience) seen what sometimes happens when a private collector notifies an institute of higher learning about the discovery of a potentially-important fossil with the hopes that said institute of higher learning will give the specimen the attention it deserves...only to find out the following season that the fossil was left in situ because of the lack of funds to put together an excavating team and that wind, rain and freezing temperatures had reduced the fossil to a useless pile of dust and bone fragments.  Who, then, was responsible for the 'loss of important data'?

 

Which is preferable, a fossil in private hands or an eroded mass of bone splinters decorating a hillside in the middle of nowhere that serve no purpose?

 

-Joe

I agree Joe,

 

I was annoyed when I read that sentence. It seems like a separate issue - illegal trade in fossils and amateurs improperly collecting specimens, so why bring it up in this context?

 

I wonder if Don has had bad experiences with improperly collected material?

 

In terms of the donation, notification of field specimens, we all hope that donating a specimen means that it will take pride of place on a display in the museum, be thoroughly studied and published and that that specimen will be extracted.

 

Scientific funding can be fickle and priorities may shift. Specimens may sit around for a while, but if important they would hopefully get published or studied in the long term. I'm mindful of this with my donated specimens. Better they are in an institution and are catalogued and available for long term study than in my collection. Who knows what will happen if I bit the dust. Museums are for display, but also repositories. I know only a fraction of material is ever displayed at one time.

 

As for forgotten field specimens, it hasn't happened to me, but I would hope to be contacted by the institution if they couldn't extract said specimen and perhaps given the opportunity to extract myself. It seems from our paleo partners section that the usual case is a good dialogue between institutions and private collectors though.

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Fruitbat

Having worked hand-in-hand with a number of museums and colleges/universities around the United States, I am aware that they are primarily repositories for long-term storage and that they have limited space available for displaying fossils (except for the ones that are spectacular enough to draw in the cash-paying public).  Without getting into the nuts and bolts of the situations, I have had the unpleasant experience of donating (at the request of a professor who shall remain un-named) a significant fossil (to a university that shall remain un-named) on the basis of an agreement that 1) I would be provided a cast of the fossil and 2), information regarding the fossil would be published and that I would be given a copy of the paper.  That was back in the late 1980s.  To date (2017), I have not received a cast of the fossil and no information was ever published on the fossil. As far as the general scientific community is concerned, the fossil does not exist.  I paid a visit to the university in the late 2000s and, after a search that took nearly two hours, managed to locate the fossil in a storage cabinet.  On the basis of the thickness of the layer of dust covering the specimen, I could only conclude that it had not been touched in the nearly 20 years that had passed since I donated it.

 

Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that my experiences are not unique.  I'm certainly not blaming the staffs of museums/colleges/universities who are generally critically under-staffed, under-funded and unappreciated...but I wonder if the idea that only fossils that are housed in 'accredited' institutes have any scientific value is valid.  Just so any readers of this tome know, I am not, by nature, an opponent of academia.  I have two bachelors degrees and a masters degree and have been published in a recognized scientific journal.  I have, unfortunately, had the experience of being treated condescendingly (if not disdainfully) by museum/university staffs because I was not directly associated with an 'accredited' college/university.  On the plus side...this has been a fairly rare occurrence...most of the people I have worked with over the years have been very cordial and cooperative.

 

Oh...as for the fate of the collections of private collectors that 'bite the dust', if the collection (or specimens that are part of the collection) is significant, then it is easy enough to stipulate ahead of time that said collection or specimens be donated to a museum/college/university of the collector's choice.  This is what happened to the collection of a close friend of mine who passed away quite unexpectedly as a result of a SCUBA diving accident.  His collection now graces the display cases and storage facilities of a local, well-known museum.  Being well-documented and expertly-prepared, the fossils have lost none of their scientific value.

 

Okay...I'm done now! 

 

-Joe

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Doctor Mud

Sorry to hear of your bad experience Joe,

I don't mean to say what you feel regarding donating fossils is wrong. I'm just providing an alternative view that wasn't provided in your original post.

Sounds like you have had a really bad experience that has completely put you off donating. 

 

It sounds like you had an informal agreement surrounding the conditions of your donation, and that wasn't upheld by the professor who recieved your donation.  

Not a great move on their behalf as they have now burnt a bridge.

 

I'm sure you are right, this could happen to others, just like anything else where human nature is involved there is the potential for things to go wrong.

 

The good news (and it seems like this is the case for you too) as long as you are dealing with a reputable institution, it is usually a win win situation. We have professional paleontologists on TFF and amateurs alike who frequently report on donating or receiving fossils.

 

I like your idea of fossil collectors donating important finds from their private collection when they pass on. 

 

The only problem is that scientifically important specimens are not necessarily accessible while in private collections - ie before donation (if it happens) And that is ok, everyone has the right (where state laws allow) to keep their fossils. From a scientific point of view fossils in private collections can't be published because other scientists can't be guaranteed access to them. That is if they know they exist. Fossils in private collections can be likened to external links on TFF. Not valuable in the fact that they may move on. A collector may trade or sell a piece.

 

Even if fossils are gathering dust in scientific institutions they are catalogued and quite often electronically accessible. Not so for private collections. 

 

So we agree that amateurs or avocational paleontologists are vital for the science. It is evident from TFF that not all amateurs are "ham fisted" and will destroy scientific context.

 

But for fossils to be publishable, they have to be catalogued at an institution. If you don't want to - that's ok. You've had a bad experience and that's not wrong. It's a shame they did what they did as it sounds like they lost an important connection.

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Canadawest

Joe, you make some valid points but I see it as a separate issue from he illegal international trade in fossils. China, Peru, Niger, etc. get to decide on their own heritage...not me.

 

Otherwise, you make some good points.

 

The issue of donating fossils is complicated.  People confuse the science of paleontology with museum curation, displays, , etc.  Quality display specimens are irrelevent to 99% of palaeontology.   Also, there is nothing 'fantastic' about a new species...I can do a study and name 20 new species just by going through a half dozen  fossil trays at the Geological Survey....let alone a thousand trays.  

 

At our office there were about 10 full time paleontologists. Most over the age of 50. A couple in their early 80's.   Outside of myself, not one could have identified a hadrosaur vertebra...just not their field. Not only that, they had zero interest.  But...one could describe in excruciating detail the structure of Paleozoic coral septa. Another...go on for hours about brachiopod growth stages.

 

The point. Despite the outward smile, we dont give a hoot about donated specimens. We'd also smile if someone donated their 90's CD rap collection.  Perhaps some Museum guy likes the outward image of a specimen but he's as likely to appreciate a pretty rock or celebrity knickknack for display.

 

The fossils we use?  To repeat my previous posts.  Complete attention to collection info...location, stratigraphy, etc.  No highgrading...a sample of an area is taken...not the best specimens. The rock beside the ammonite is as important as the ammonite.

 

Anyways.  I personally have rarely donated a specimen thinking that it has some future scientific value. Always show it to someone knowledgeable in the specific subject and ask if they can definitely use it. In contrast,  I give lots and lots of fossils away to amateur keeners.  I have thousands more to give away when I kick the bucket. Tyrell doesnt need  a thousand Tyrannosaur teeth to add to their buckets of thousands. No museum will give a hoot about my thousand species of cephalopods...but some keener may appreciate them. I know from my experience that if I donated my collection 'to research' that I might get some smiles, a thank you, a certificate, etc....and ten minutes later some researcher will return to his foramnifera. 

 

 

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Fruitbat

Again...please do not operate under the mistaken idea that I'm condemning all of academia or the idea that I was expecting a ticker-tape parade with a massive fireworks display when I donated the fossil(s) that were specifically asked for by the professor in question.  I am completely cognizant of the value (or lack thereof) of donated fossils without a detailed provenance. (The specimen(s) I donated DID have rather extensive documentation and were relevant to a study that the professor was conducting at the moment.)  Besides...my few personal bad experiences are far outnumbered by the good experiences I've had working with my 'peers'.  What happened with me is actually irrelevant to this discussion...other than to point out that the worth of the 'amateur' is often dismissed by the 'professional' to the detriment of both.

 

China...Alberta...Brazil...Peru...Scotland and lower Botswana certainly have the right, misguided though their motives may be, to protect their national 'treasures', whether they be animal, vegetable or mineral.  I still maintain that a fossil that remains undiscovered is of no use to anybody and that, as soon as it is exposed to the elements, it will rapidly become COMPLETELY useless!  I also find myself wondering what happens to all of these repatriated specimens when they are so graciously returned to their original 'owners'.  Do they find their rightful place in the dim and distant recesses of a museum basement, never to be seen nor heard from again?  I realize that scientific research often moves at a glacial pace but, if these repatriated fossils are so scientifically valuable it might be reasonably expected that SOMETHING would be done with them in a reasonable length of time.

 

I'm afraid that what was originally intended by Oxytropidoceras to be a mere update on a rather insignificant incident has mushroomed into a massive diatribe about the relative worth of the 'amateur' to the field of paleontology and so, keeping that in mind, I'm going to limit any further participation in this discussion to a bare minimum.  I would be more than happy to debate this in a more appropriate post.  Thanks to Oxytropidoceras for keeping us updated!

 

-Joe

 

 

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