Commercial Collectors in the 21st Century

Michael Triebold (535 Central Ave. N., Valley City, ND 58072 USA).

Kirby Siber (Siber & Siber A. G., Zuericherstr. 188-190, CH-8607 AATHAL, Switzerland).

Paul R. Janke (President, Pan Terra, Inc., 5554 Trading Post Trail S., Afton, Minnesota 55001, USA).


It is the sincere hope of the commercial paleontologists representing the industry at the Senckenberg conference to work hand in hand with all interested parties in academia and elsewhere to investigate the fossil record of planet Earth and make tangible and significant contributions to the science of paleontology. At the Senckenberg conference, the working group identified some key issues facing commercial paleontology in the 21st century which include: securing access to collect fossils, sustaining good relations with the scientific community and general public, cultivating productive international relations and import/export regulations, and making the scientific community aware of the expertise available in the private sector. Unless otherwise indicated, the thoughts and opinions in this report are those of the authors, and should not be construed as representing a consensus of the conference participants.


The collection of fossils has been the foundation of paleontology for the past 200 years. With the advent of fossil collecting, the fossil market and fossil commerce were born. Fossils have been bought, sold, traded, loaned and donated ever since within the context of the global market economy. From the first Archaeopteryx, to the collections of the famous Sternberg family, to the Field Museum's recent purchase of SUE(tm), the renowned Tyrannosaurus rex for a record 8.3 million dollars, independent fossil collectors have supplied the world's natural history museums with many of paleontology's greatest discoveries and specimens.

It is the desire of commercial paleontologists (see definition below) to make contributions to science, but this is not necessarily their raison d'etre. More often, and more specifically, a legacy of discovery is their core motive. The science of paleontology is nonetheless enhanced by their contributions of high quality specimens and information. Museums, the paleontological community, and the general public all benefit from the collection, documentation and preservation of these fossils. Innovations in technique and new technologies are significant additional contributions from commercial paleontologists.

Defining "Commercial Paleontologist".
If "commercial paleontologist" refers to anyone who engages in fossil commerce, then this is a very diverse group indeed. Public sector museums and universities collect, buy, sell and trade fossils as do independent collectors and dealers worldwide. Some are degreed paleontologists and geologists. Others prefer to operate in the business environment rather than in public sector institutions. Still others engage in fossil collecting and/or commerce though they lack formal training in paleontology or geology.

The authors feel confident in representing that it is the desire of commercial paleontologists to distance themselves from poachers, vandals and those who do not conform to the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers (AAPS) or similar code of ethics. Thus, commercial paleontologists as defined herein can be identified by the following criteria: 1) they follow the AAPS code of ethics (see Appendix) and, 2) they share their discoveries with the academic community and general public. With the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web, sharing this information has now become both simple and cost effective.


The primary issues facing commercial paleontologists in the 21st century are:

  • Obtaining access to fossil bearing lands for collecting.
  • Sustaining good relations with the academic community and general public.
  • Cultivating productive international relations and import/export regulations.
  • Informing the scientific community of the expertise and resources available among commercial paleontologists in the private sector.

Access to Collect Fossils on Public Lands in the United States.

In the USA, many collectible fossils exposed on public lands are left to disintegrate under the forces of weathering each year. Current land management policies prohibit the collection of vertebrate fossils on public lands for commercial purposes. In the opinion of the authors, a valuable educational and economic resource is being mismanaged, resulting in the loss of fossils and associated scientific information. We acknowledge that individuals dispute this opinion within the paleontological community, among land management agencies, and within the public.

The authors question whether reliance on tax dollars is an appropriate strategy for primary funding of fossil collection on public lands. Private sector amateur collectors and businesses employing experienced fieldworkers are effective vehicles for locating, collecting and documenting fossils on public lands. The private sector is willing to risk its own time and resources at, hopefully, minimal cost to the taxpayer. It is the authors' opinion that:
&Mac183; amateur collectors and fossil collecting businesses should be given access to public lands for the purpose of fossil collecting.
&Mac183; that they should strive for the highest standards of technique and documentation.
&Mac183; this allowance would result in a contribution to the science of paleontology by preventing loss of specimens to erosion.
&Mac183; that while this allowance would result in considerable private ownership of fossils, the potential contributions outweigh the potential loss.

A bill being prepared for re-introduction to Congress, stemming from the efforts of the American Lands Access Association (ALAA) is called the " Fossil Preservation Act". It is an attempt to grant access to amateur and commercial paleontologists and would help prevent the loss of weathering fossils on public lands. According to the ALAA, the proposed legislation also addresses the legitimate concerns of the entire paleontological community. A primary argument against such legislation is that fossils on public lands belong to the public trust and should not be collected for profit. Regarding profit, the authors would like to point out that value, including preparation, restoring, documenting, studying, and describing, is frequently added to collected fossils in order to achieve profit. In the private sector, these costs, which may be considerable, are borne by the businessperson. In other words, collection alone does not guarantee profit.

In the authors' view, the fundamental issues of commercial/amateur vs. academic paleontology on public lands could be viewed in terms of funding. Future funding for paleontology was one of the most-discussed topics at the Senckenberg Conference. Participants expressed concern about adequate funding for field research and collection, collection expansion and management, preparation and curation, and data management. If such concerns are valid, then it seems appropriate if not essential for all interests to consider the potential contributions of a variety of private sector funding sources. It is in fact our view that private sector funding sources must be the financial cornerstone for paleontology to flourish in the 21st century. Business-oriented access to fossils on public lands would likely be a critical ingredient for a successful collaboration between academic paleontology and private sector funding sources. The authors believe that all parties involved in the debate should seek such collaborative solutions over access to fossils on public lands in the United States. Finally, the authors believe that there is reason to hope that collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors, examples of which have been occurring for many years, will continue to grow and flourish into the 21st century.

Relations with the Academic Community and General Public.

In the last quarter century, the paleontological community has become increasingly divided regarding the perceived value, rights, and privileges of commercial paleontologists. Some paleontologists assume a blanket anti-commercial posture. The media tend to amplify the conflict while ignoring abundant examples of ongoing cooperation, thus exacerbating the situation in the public eye. This situation is counterproductive and tends to polarize the larger community of paleontology, and to confuse the public.

In recent years, efforts have been made to resolve these differences. Many people on both sides of the issue are frustrated and sincerely seek resolution through compromise. Furthermore, around the world many institutional, commercial and amateur collectors enjoy established, solid, and productive relationships. We offer first a list of suggested points, which if agreed upon by all interested communities would further efforts to achieve compromises. Second, we offer two examples of the benefits of collaboration among interested communities.

To achieve compromise and to further cooperative relationships, the authors suggest that all interested communities must agree upon the following concepts:

  • Ethical behavior is an individual choice, not a group characteristic. The responsible members of a group are not to blame for the sins of others.
  • It is not the place of any one group to define the role of another; rather, each group should define it's own role in terms of the positive contribution it can make to the whole.
  • Other than where legally mandated, the public sector interest in fossils does not exceed or supercede the private sector interest.
  • In the public domain, the buying, selling, trading, importing, exporting and donating of fossils are legal issues, though they may be moral or ethical issues for individuals.
  • Commercial paleontology could yield more diverse fossil collections, adding scientific, educational, and economic value to both public and private collections.
  • Scientific collecting, preparation, display, education and salvage operations are all arenas of endeavor suitable to commercial paleontology and collaborative efforts with public sector scientists.
  • We should look beyond tax dollars to fuel the science of paleontology.
  • Business acumen will be a prerequisite for effectively managing paleontological projects in 21st century.

The following examples illustrate cooperative efforts between the public and private sectors and their mutual benefits, including unique and exciting additions to museum exhibits.

  1. According to the Senckenberg Museum representatives who participated in this topic's working group, their staff maintains good and productive relations with commercial paleontologists. All parties work together in a spirit of cooperation, which allows the museum to construct displays of a quality and diversity that would be impossible if they attempted to discover and collect all the specimens themselves. The Senckenberg model foretells the future and should be emulated by institutions worldwide. It is frequently more cost effective for museums to purchase specimens from the private sector or other institutions than to finance their own expeditions in hopes of finding specimens comparable to what is available on the market.

  2. In 1983, two amateur rockhounds, Cephis Hall and Sid Love, discovered a dinosaur skeleton eroding out of the earth in McCurtain County, Oklahoma. They had found what is to date the finest specimen of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis known. After three years of excavation, they were joined in their efforts were joined y Allan Graffham, a private sector paleontologist who eventually purchased the unprepared skeleton in 1989. The specimen was then transported to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc. in South Dakota where it was fully prepared, molded, cast and mounted. Allan Graffham and his wife Fran invested their life savings in this project. In 1997, this specimen was purchased for a signature exhibit for the new North Carolina Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh. Corporate donors to the "Friends of the Museum" organization made the purchase possible. Dr. Dale Russell, paleontologist with North Carolina State University and curator of museum exhibits, has already begun extensive research into Acrocanthosaurus and this important specimen. This effort demonstrates how everybody can win through collaboration: the public, amateur paleontologists, institutional and private sector paleontologists, museums, corporate donors and taxpayers.

International Relations and Import/Export Regulations.

The surface of the earth contains a tremendous abundance of fossils in many countries. There is an extremely limited number of fossil enthusiasts to collect, prepare, curate and study these fossils. It would take an inestimable amount of time and resources for public sector paleontologists to study, catalog and describe the fossils already collected and stored in public institutions worldwide, let alone deal with an influx of new material. Worldwide, regulations regarding commercial uses of fossils run the gamut from complete bans, to pragmatic tolerance, to complete freedom (see this volume). The following points summarize the authors' opinions regarding international trade in fossils:

  • Everyone should have the right to collect, purchase, sell, trade, import, export or donate fossils at their discretion and within the framework of a reasonable set of regulations.
  • It is detrimental to the science of paleontology to treat fossils as a form of contraband, which cannot bought and sold.
  • The paleontological community as a whole shares a common scientific interest in diversifying collections, which means specimens should be allowed to flow across international borders and between the public and private sectors of society.
  • The flow of specimens both internationally and domestically should be encouraged and facilitated through free trade and open market policies. While fossils may be considered "national treasures", they are also part of humanity's common heritage.
  • While it makes sense to retain certain fossils, such as type specimens or regionally representative collections, in the region or nation in which they are discovered, fossils that are abundant in a particular region should be collected and distributed internationally. This would add educational, scientific and economic value to collections.

Codes of ethics and conduct may be more effective than regulation for achieving protection of fossils and sites. Some countries are beginning to formulate site-specific ethical codes in place of restrictive or punitive regulations. For example, it has been determined that fossil collecting did no more damage to the cliffs of West Dorset, in the Lyme Regis area of southern Britain, when compared with natural erosion rates. Furthermore, the rapidly eroding cliffs continuously expose new fossils and without frequent collecting through the winter months they would be destroyed. A proposed code of conduct for the region attempts to provide a conduit for information flow, guarantee ownership to the collector to allay fears of confiscation, encourage safety and allow the collection of the vertebrate and other fragile fossils to prevent their destruction. Information on the report containing this information is available from the authors.


A collaborative era.

At best, a new era of cooperation will be launched that would feature public and private components of the paleontological community combining their skills and resources and working together. The 21st century should herald more cooperative arrangements between university and museum personnel and private companies. If the skills of all parties are deployed in an optimal fashion, the number of fossils collected, studied and documented would increase and everyone would benefit.

The job and fossil markets.

Paleontology jobs in the public sector could be difficult to find in the 21st century if they depend upon traditional sources, for example the National Science Foundation. Meanwhile, we predict that private sector fossil businesses will continue to be a growth area for jobs including reconnaissance, fieldwork, collection, preparation, moulding, casting, painting, archiving and marketing. Fossils and fossil reproductions will be slow to moderate growth industries into the 21st century. The primary consumers of the scientifically important and display quality specimens will continue to be museums.


Much attention at the Senckenberg Conference focused on the plight of European and American natural history museums (see this volume). Many claim to be nearly full to capacity. Current funding levels cannot support additional space and staff. For example, Dr. Douglas Erwin stated in a conference address that he is the first curator in the history of the Smithsonian Institution that will be forced to de-accession fossil collections due to a lack of space and resources.

De-accessioning museum collections could result in the loss of specimens for study if such "orphan collections" are not "adopted" by another public institution. New management strategies will be required which maintain the maximum value of collections given the available space and resources. From the authors' perspective, the following criteria for determining the total "value" of specimens could be employed to "high-grade" collections. That is, to make a transition to " quality versus quantity" management strategy.

  • Base cost of the specimen, as the total of purchase price and or costs of: collection, preparation, display/storage space, and ongoing curation. Appraised market value.
  • Extended economic value, e.g. as a draw for visitors, source of casts, reproductions, and other merchandise for sale.
  • Type specimen.
  • Rarity or replace-ability.
  • Quality of preservation.
  • Thoroughness of documentation and study.

We predict that the large, well-established natural history museums will continue to grow in proportion to their ability to acquire funding directly from the private sector. The Field Museum in Chicago secured close to 10 million dollars from corporate sponsors to buy and curate the Tyrannosaurus rex SUE(tm). Other museums involved in the bidding had also arranged for millions of dollars of sponsorship from corporations. Expert knowledge and consideration of the economic value of fossils helps institutions market themselves effectively to funding sources in the private sector. Fossils like SUE(tm) can attract large numbers of visitors. The Field Museum stands to increase their annual revenue by displaying SUE(tm), as does the North Carolina Museum and their new Acrocanthosaurus (see above). Corporate sponsors benefit through public relations, advertising and merchandising, all of which can yield indirect benefits for paleontology through increased public awareness and appreciation.

Finally, we believe there is a developing trend toward privately owned, financially independent natural history museums. Smaller museums will integrate with larger ones or cease to exist. Large, well-established institutions are somewhat immune to these trends.


The authors offer the following vision of a collaborative future for paleontology. The optimal goal is to combine public and private resources to collect, preserve and document the most fossils possible, while minimizing the reliance on taxpayer dollars. Private companies should finance and perform the majority of the expensive fieldwork, excavation and preparation activities while working hand in hand with their museum and academic colleagues. This would result in experienced fieldworkers and businesses carrying out and managing those components that require large capital investment and labor costs, while the public sector is free to focus on basic science, research, publishing, and educational programs.

The beginning of the 21st century offers an opportunity to achieve such a vision, which would breath new life and fellowship into a united community. Scientists, museums, schools, and the public all benefit from continued efforts to collect and preserve more of the fossil record. This common need should unite our efforts and generate cooperation among various interest groups. Creating and fostering good relations among commercial and amateur paleontologists, academic paleontologists, and the general public is essential for such cooperation.


We would like to thank the following participants in the Senckenberg discussions on commercial paleontology: Prof. Mu Xi-nan, Dr. Gerhard Plodowski, Dr. Volker Wilder, Dr. Joshua Fischman, and Mr. Richard Stone.


Codes of Ethics.

I. The American Association of Paleontological Suppliers (AAPS) Code of Ethics

Members of the The American Association of Paleontological Suppliers will:

  1. Strive to stay informed and comply with national, state and local regulations pertaining to collecting activities and general business practices.

  2. Obtain permission from landowners or governmental authorities to gain access to collecting sites.

  3. Assure that all lands, properties, flora and fauna are left without damage to property or ecology as a result of collecting activities.

  4. Require that fossil materials from outside collections are obtained in compliance with the above collecting guidelines set forth by the Association.

  5. Report to proper local authorities any significant discoveries of scientific or public interest.

  6. Strive to place specimens of unique scientific interest into responsible hands for study, research and preservation.

  7. Make no misrepresentation as to identity, locality, age, formation, repairs or restoration of paleontological specimens.

  8. Conform to professional business practices when obtaining or disposing of specimens.

  9. Maintain a good credit standing among fellow suppliers of earth science materials.

  10. Encourage good relations and cooperation with the agencies, institutions and organizations actively involved in paleontological pursuits.

II. The American Lands Access Association (ALAA) Code of Ethics

    I will respect both private and public property and will do no collecting on privately owned land without the owner's permission.

    I will keep informed on all laws, regulations or rules governing collecting on public lands and will observe them.

    I will, to the best of my ability, ascertain boundary lines of property on which I plan to collect.

    I will use no firearms or blasting material in collecting areas.

    I will cause no willful damage to property of any kind - fences, signs, buildings, etc.

    I will leave all gates as found.

    I will build fires in designated or safe places only and will be certain that they are completely extinguished before I leave the area.

    I will discard no burning material - matches, cigarettes, etc.

    I will fill all excavation holes, which may be dangerous to livestock or wild animals.

    I will not contaminate wells, creeks or other water supplies.

    I will cause no willful damage to collecting materials and areas and will take home only what I can reasonably use.

    I will support all litter control projects such as "Pitch In" and "Help Eliminate Litter Please" and will leave collecting areas devoid of litter, regardless of how found.

    I will participate in and encourage recycling programs that reuse our resources and discourage waste.

    I will cooperate with field trip leaders and those in designated authority in all collecting areas.

    I will report to my Club or Federation officers, and to the appropriate public land managers, any deposit of previously unknown material or significant natural resource which should be protected for the enjoyment of future generations for public, educational and scientific purposes.

    I will appreciate and protect our heritage of natural resources.

    I will observe the "Golden Rule" and will use "Good Outdoor Manners" and will at all times act in a manner, which will add to the stature and positive "Public Image" of amateur collectors everywhere.

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