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Buying fossils

As with other collectibles, rarities, antiques and such in a free market economy, there is a trade in fossils. This trade has both advantages and disadvantages. In some cases, it can have a stimulating and inspiring effect by bringing people into contact with the excavation and preservation of fossils. Without this trade, some scientifically important fossils would never have been preserved or even have been discovered.

However, trade and financial interests often go hand in hand with greed and destruction, and private interests quickly get the upper hand at the expense of the public interest. Do commercial excavations really contribute so much to our knowledge of fossils, when we also have to acknowledge that they almost always result in huge amounts of information being lost? For collectors, especially for those who purchase or sell fossils themselves, it is very important to have a clear view on these aspects of fossil trade. In particular because the benefits associated with trade in fossils for science and the public interest rarely outweigh the disadvantages.

Please note this review is an attempt to offer an insight in the different aspects that might play a role when making personal choices about fossil trade. Given the complexity of the matter, we will have to limit ourselves to the main highlights, without ignoring some important nuances. We do not want to give the impression that trade in all its forms and in all circumstances is always a bad thing, or that traders are by definition committing themselves to harmful practices. However, we think it is important to provide the amateur collector with a clear picture of the pros and cons of fossil trade.

 

Purchasing fossils for your collection

Trade in fossils can take on many forms. On the one hand fossils are sometimes bought as a gadget or as an indoor decoration. This applies to small pieces, but also to museum pieces. In some wealthy circles it is very popular, a hype even, to collect fossils. Also, fossils -like other rarities- are sometimes bought as a financial investment. From the collector’s point of view (private or museum)  the purchase of fossils is mainly interesting for study and collection. In particular for fossils that cannot easily be found, e.g. because they are found in remote locations, or that you cannot prepare and conserve by yourself, buying can become an interesting option. Also if you are unable to go out hunting for fossils (e.g. for medical reasons), purchasing might be the only real alternative to build a collection.

Building a collection by searching for all fossils by yourself requires an enormous investment of time and effort. Often you see eager beginners immediately purchasing a wide range of fossils in order to quickly build a basic collection that can withstand the comparison to other collections they know. In a digital world the bar is quickly set very high. Where in the old days the comparison took place within the local association, nowadays photos of masterpieces are shared online from all over the world. Whether a fossil purchase makes sense depends on the criteria which the buyer has. Just randomly buying fossils is usually not the best way to build up a good collection. It makes sense to first consider which direction you want your collection to go, and which time periods or taxonomic groups you are interested in. For example, you can buy fossils that have some kind of a link with each other, e.g. from the same period, or from the same region.

Purchasing fossils can be an effective method to build up a good collection, or to expand a collection. When one already has an extensive collection, purchases may be an interesting way to fill in specific gaps in the collection. In addition, purchasing reference material from a different region may also be an option. For example, someone who has built an extensive collection of European Albian ammonites, may also be interested to collect comparable data from the Albian of North America. Studying the similarities and differences between these faunas can be very exciting. Instead of having to travel to the United States numerous times, the purchase of fossils -or exchanging them for other fossils- is a much more efficient way to build this reference collection.

Fossils are for sale through all the classic channels. There are also specialized fairs. The pricing of fossils is related to the supply and demand, and to whatever folks are willing to pay. The latter may even be the deciding factor. It is advisable to be well informed before spending a lot of money on fossils, because high prices are everywhere, just like forgeries or 'upgraded' pieces.

The fair in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines is one of the largest in Europe.

A major drawback of fossils that are purchased, is that there is almost always a considerable lack of clarity about the exact provenance of the fossil. The lack of information on the fossils' origin, or even doubt or ambiguity about the origin, makes a fossil in most cases pretty much worthless from a scientific perspective. Unfortunately, the lack of provenance details is very common, and the relevance of this is underestimated by many sellers. In addition, gathering, keeping and passing on information is associated with a significant extra overhead for the seller, so why bother if it does not affect the selling price significantly? And because it hardly has any an influence on market prices, one can only colclude that correct information about the origin is also underestimated by many buyers.

Choosing the best source for purchasing fossils depends on many factors. It is preferred to buy from someone who can be very precise about the origin, i.e. someone who is involved in the excavation of the fossils. Better yet is it to personally visit a site and to purchase the fossils where they are extracted from the ground. Not only do you have the chance to register the precise origin, also you can directly pay the finder or the preserver, instead of having money being distributed among intermediaries, it ends up right there where the work is done.

Many fairs are dominated by minerals and jewelry, with a fairly limited choice of fossils.

 

Barter

For collectors who also find fossils themselves, to barter is a very interesting way to expand the collection. You can exchange the multiple pieces in your collection for pieces which for you are difficult to acquire. A good swap is a real win-win for both parties: the piece that you exchange has a very low added value for you, while for the other party it is very valuable indeed, and vice versa. Because there is no money involved, and because every transaction is committed to balance the win-win situation, swapping is in many ways considered a much healthier form of fossil trade.

 

Trade in fossils: legally acceptable?

Whether the trade in fossils is legally allowed or not is highly contextual. First, the origin of the fossil plays a large role. After all, whether the possession, trade, import and export of fossils is allowed depends on the laws of the country of origin and on those of the country of destination. In addition, the nature of the fossil is important, and the specific find-conditions may also play a role. Some sites are integrally protected (e.g. geological reserves, nature reserves, SSSI, etc.) and also whether the fossil was found on private or public land, and whether or not it was permitted to collect it, may play a role.

For many countries there is no specific legislation for the trading of fossils. This is often in contrast with for example the trade in archaeological finds or in protected animal species. In the absence of specific legislation, sometimes fossils are being labeled as a 'soil find'. The protection of all forms of  'soil finds ' is common in countries with a very extensive and valuable archaeological patrimony. Sometimes it is not clearly defined what type of fossils may, and what type of fossils may not be traded or exported. In short, the legal framework around the trading of fossils is often very unclear or complex; in some cases you can speak of a lack of regulation, in other cases it is an excess of regulations.

In some cases, however, the legislation is very clear: for example, no fossil of any kind may be exported from China. However, fossils of that origin are regularly seen at fairs and on online auction sites. Often, but not always, these are counterfeits or illegal specimens. But what about a piece that seems to come from China, but which is specified by the seller to have a different origin? This illustrates that the fossil trade is full of grey zones and ambiguities. Sometimes it seems like the regulations were tailored to fit a broad grey area. In some regions, a significant part of a (sometimes poor) community derives its income from the fossil trade, andthere is little local political support for a ban on fossil trade.

 

Trade in fossils and scientific importance

The trade in fossils is in the interest of the fossil trader, and hopefully also in that of the buyer.  But what about the common interest, the importance of fossils to society? After all, fossils can be of a significant informative, educational, cultural and aesthetic value. Whatever way you look at it, the engine behind the common interest is the scientific importance of fossils in the broadest sense of the word. We mean both the conservation and study of the informative value of the fossils themselves, and the role they play for mankind in a cultural-historical sense (as in folklore, as in abandoning the anthropocentric worldview, and so on). The  scientific study of fossils should result in the construction and dissemination of new insights and information, in education and in social progress, and these serve the common interest, also for generations to come.

From the scientific perspective there is relatively little objection to the trade itself, but more against certain risks associated with some forms of trade, such as information loss, corruption or destruction of important scientific material or sites, and the disappearance of material to private collections. An additional problem is that trade can push up the prices of special pieces, so that it becomes impossible for museums and research institutes to acquire them, or that it is irresponsible to buy them with the txpayers' money. Indicative of this is the trend to promote fossils –and to drive up their price - with terms such as 'rare',  'unique' or simply 'undescribed'.

Clearly, there is a considerable difference between the trade in small common fossils and a complete dinosaur fossil, for example. It is mainly the trade in finds with a clear heritage value or scientific value that can have a damaging effect. In the latter case, the most damage often happens already when a find is improperly dug up or unprofessionally preserved.

 

Advice for purchasing and selling

The most important thing that you should keep in mind when you purchase fossils, is ' know what you buy '. The price depends on many different factors, such as the nature of the fossil, its size, quality, origin, preservation situation and condition, etc. Also aesthetic aspects often play a role, as do the classic market phenomena like hypes, reliability of the seller, and so on. High prices are very common, as are 'happy' buyers who have paid a lot of money for a virtually worthless piece or even for a complete falsification. Transactions over the internet are often based on some vague pictures, which do not enable a good assessment of the real quality of the fossil.

So make sure you are well informed, not just about prices and authenticity, but – especially when you consider a major purchase – also about the legal and ethical aspects of a possible purchase. If you do not have the experience to assess a purchase, ask for advice in your association, from colleagues with more knowledge and experience, or on our forum. Please be advised, however, that Fossiel.net does not provide services to estimate the value of your fossils.

Once again, and we cannot repeat this enough, the value of information is often underestimated. A piece whose exact origin is unclear, is often scientifically more or less worthless. In some commercial circuits this is not an issue, which in itself says a lot about these circuits. A fossil without any further information, no matter how beautiful it looks, may be best compared to a book with a beautiful cover but with blank pages: it looks nice on the bookshelf, but it is of no use to anyone.

 

The ethics of trading fossils

Of course we do not want to discourage the fossil trade in all its forms.  But clearly it is a complex world, and a prospective buyer has to take many aspects into consideration.

These are a lot of considerations, and it is not always easy to get a clear picture of them.  It is important to realize that trading in itself can take on many forms. That is why it is a good idea to look at what the Belgian Council of Earth Sciences (RAW) says about this. Most Belgian associations endorse the code of ethics for the amateur collectors of the RAW, and membership of these associations implies an agreement with this code. What does this code say about trade? This is reflected in article 7-Trade in Geo-objects: "the amateur geologist or collector of geo-objects is permitted to only occasionally trade in geo-objects. Barter is encouraged as a means to extend the own collection. "

This approach not only recognizes the usefulness of fossil trade, but also the potentially harmful side of excessive trade. At the same time, barter is recommended as a better form of trade. At Fossiel.net we very much agree with this philosophy in the sense that we only allow non-commercial transactions on our platform, and that the exchange (swapping) of fossils is strongly encouraged, preferably in a sociable and friendly athmosphere.


Do you have additional information for this article? Please contact the Fossiel.net Team.

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