How Fake Fossils Pervert Paleontology
November 18, 2014 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Fake trilobite "fossils" have been an issue for well over a decade, perhaps much longer. This article on their preparation is apparently from 2002. I'm reluctant to describe it as a problem, though, because the supply of fake fossils presumably satisfies at least a portion of the amateur collectors who just want a paperweight, leaving more genuine specimens for research.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:51 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Unless the fake fossils get mixed in with real fossils and used for real research (like if a researcher can't do high level scans on it) or unless real fossils are looted or broken up to be turned into more marketable fakes. The same thing happens in archaeology and while rarely it does take pressure off the market, the market mainly demands more and more, creating more reason to loot or worse, to destroy "lesser" finds so that the market isn't flooded with them. Meanwhile, sites get more and more damaged, consumers and researchers get defrauded, and auction houses and auction sites continue to turn a blind eye towards fossil provenance and laws.

I volunteered briefly at a lab working with amber fossils in high school, which is an area fraught with fakes, some of them quite good. If your amber has a pristine (large) insect in it and it wasn't expensive, the chances are not great that it's real. My supervisor at one point bought a specimen from an auction site with his own money, because if it was real, it was going to be an excellent comparison for something he was working on, but there was no way to verify it pre-transaction.

Anyway, a very cool excerpt on an important issue, thank you for posting it.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:29 PM on November 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've come to loathe moneyed private collectors and fossil sellers so much that I hiss whenever I see a sign for a gem and fossil show. (Not talking about the serious amateur collectors who go out to look for their own stuff, because I believe that "amateurs" can still contribute to science and I've seen amateurs with more respect for collecting than university paleontologists. . . not to mention a good deal more humility.)

I've had my own work destroyed by those people so they could sell it to a private collector. I've seen some destruction and theft that made the main paleontologists involved break down and cry. . . including a theft that involved a middle of the night drive over private land in badlands topography with a fucking front end loader, jack hammers, a crane, and a flat bed semi; in one greed fueled night they destroyed 2 years worth of work and over a half a mill in grant funding (not to mention the work of 3 PhD candidates), all to steal a 10x10 slab of rock (and probably broke) which none of us have ever seen again.

It's a problem everywhere, and it's a problem that moves from locality to locality (and from "ology" to "ology", eh archaeologists?) with whatever is cool or the best or most well preserved at the moment. So much of it comes down to the money, competition, and ego among the buyers. . . which can include museums, too.
posted by barchan at 2:32 PM on November 18, 2014 [16 favorites]

Barchan, that's just heartbreaking. (I come from a family of amateurs but I think and hope that we've followed every rule of responsible collecting.) The worst part is that there's just no way to protect most sites, let alone all sites.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:39 PM on November 18, 2014

Is there such a thing as an ethical replica trade for known fakes, for those that want decoration but don't want to contribute to destruction of actual samples?
posted by benzenedream at 3:10 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I could be totally wrong here but usually replicas (as opposed to fakes) are stamped or otherwise marked as such, and marketed as replicas. (There are also fossils for sale that are totally aboveboard, at least for certain kinds of fossils, as far as I know? But barchan is undoubtedly more informed on that.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 3:26 PM on November 18, 2014

benzenedream, I don't know if there's what you call an actual trade, but you can get replicas - I have a replica plesiosaur skull on my desk right now. Hell, a good many of the displayed bones in museums are often either really good fakes or have fake bones interspersed throughout to make up for the lack of real ones and to make it appear more complete.

And jetlagaddict is right, there are totally aboveboard fossils for sale. The question is...why and how? It could be legitimate because it came from private land, and private landowners can sell anything to anyone they please. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have scientific value.

Or maybe it doesn't matter because it's a fossil clam from public land, collected legally, and there are thousands of fossil clams out there....but what if it's a species that is actually kind of rare and might mean something for climate studies? Therein lies the dilemma; it's an unhappy one with no clear answers, and a different answer for every fossil. I struggle with it myself all the time when I see fossils in-situ and am legally able to collect them. Sometimes I do, sometimes I leave them alone. But I absolutely refuse to buy, myself.
posted by barchan at 4:13 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

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