Natural history under the hammer
By Mark Carnall, on 4 December 2013
Recently there have been a spate of high profile auctions of natural history specimens raising many issues about ownership, the value we should or shouldn’t put on natural history and the relationship between professional scientists, museums, amateurs and private collectors. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about the recent dodo bones that were auctioned. Colleagues Dave Hone and Mark Graham give a balanced view of the recent sale of a Diplodocus skeleton over at the Guardian. The ‘duelling dinosaurs’ fossil was estimated to reach $9 million at auction in New York and last year the controversial proposed sale of an allegedly illicitly smuggled Tarbosaurus skeleton caused much debate.
I thought I’d add my thoughts on the subject here, in particular about the relationship between collectors, museums and ethics.
Lost to Science
One of the most common criticisms that comes from the scientific community is that these high profile and expensive auctions, way above the budgets that museums can afford, result in a loss to science when specimens pass into private collections. I don’t want to downplay that this is a real problem, I know of at least two examples of important material that would likely cause a re-evaluation of entire groups of organisms but which are resolutely in the hands of private collectors who won’t allow them to be accessed. However, other museums, particularly art collections, embrace and work with private collectors. The museums get to display important or interesting objects and the collectors receive credit and validation for the collections they have built up. Furthermore, the buying, selling and trading of artworks means that there’s an excellent paper trail in the form of auction and exhibition catalogues which means that the movement of works can be traced much more readily than natural history specimens which don’t have this tradition of a published, publicly accessible paper trail.
Private to Public
When it comes to natural history I think we’re too quick to demonise private collectors with the “loss to science” rhetoric. Many of today’s largest museums were founded as private collections that were donated to the nation including the Natural History Museum London, the Natural History Museum Tring and the British Museum. Of course the Tate galleries still bear the name of the man whose funds and collections seeded what is now considered one of the most important art collections in the world. Recently two George Stubbs paintings, the first Western depictions of Australian animals were ‘saved for the nation‘ by the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The works were finally secured by a significant donation from a shipping magnate and patron of the NMM. It would be interesting to consider if the paintings would have been saved in the same way if it were the Natural History Museum trying to secure the funds instead. Natural history museums don’t receive anywhere near the same level or have such a long history of patronage supporting them as other kinds of museums. Often it’s assumed that buyers of multimillion pound specimens erect them in their mansions and display them as ‘trophy’ objects. That’s not to say that this doesn’t occur but I think it’s fair to assume that these buyers may have a keen interest and love of natural history. Perhaps talking to private collectors instead of instantly labelling them as a problem would improve the patronage and support of natural history museums and increase the awareness of ethical collecting and trading.
If relationships were improved there’s also the danger that scientific research on specimens could be used to increase the price tag of specimens as commercial assets. Say for example, if research on the recently sold Diplodocus skeleton revealed that it was the largest, rarest or the only example of a new species this increases the rarity and desirability of the object and pushes the price even further away from the reaches of public institutions. Conversely, research may devalue a specimen, yet another reason why private collectors may be wary of caliper bearing scientists examining their collections. It’s already ubiquitous across museums to never give a valuation on objects brought in for opinions or identifications to avoid certifying or authenticating material for sale. I’d recommend looking across the museum sector to seek guidance on how other museums deal with the issues of research affecting commodity prices.
Amateur vs. Professional
Lastly, working with private and amateur collectors can very realistically improve our knowledge about the natural world. Anecdotally, I’d say that there’s a deep mistrust of museums by amateur collectors (either those buying their collections or those collecting fossils and unfortunately extant animals from the wild). There’s the perception that once an object goes into a museum collection it’s essentially lost to the public, only accessible to card carrying scientists. With museums bursting at the seams with objects, only a tiny proportion of collections on display and visits to collections requiring managing it’s easy to see where this perception comes from. Again, looking to other museums provides guidance. The excellent, excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme is a solution to this exact problem in archaeology. There are thousands of amateur archaeologists, metal detectorists and collectors and the portable antiquities scheme is an easy way to encourage the wider archaeological community to register finds. They are given full credit for the discoveries, there’s a prestige associated with contributing to the scheme and their finds and data are almost instantly available to the wider sector. Quite why a similar scheme for fossil finds doesn’t exist is increasingly perplexing especially as the legislation and policing of the movement of fossil material, as the aforementioned Tarbosaurus auction highlighted, is nowhere near as robust as it is with artworks and archaeological material.
With museums brokering discussions with private collectors and auction houses we could better support patronage for museums, save important specimens for the public and improve our understanding of palaeontology and biology.
Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology