Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Illustration for article titled The Bonhams Natural History Auction UPDATED

In four days, Bonham's will hold a public auction that will contain natural history specimens. Some of these specimens are former natural history museum specimens. This ...is a problem.

Before this week, the specimens that were setting off everyone's radar were the specimens pictured (or, to be more accurate, that's their plaster model) above, the so-called Montana "Dueling Dinosaurs", Lot 1032. These two specimens are a chasmosaurine ceratopsian (think: Triceratops) and a tyrannosaurine theropod (think: Tyrannosaurus) that are preserved in close proximity to one another. To quote from the auction guidebook:

Two points make The Montana Dueling Dinosaurs particularly important in terms of taxonomic understanding of dinosaur species: (1) The ceratopsian may represent a new and undescribed species (the uniqueness of its skull and pelvis appears to differentiate it from Triceratops ), and (2) The controversy surrounding the genus, Nanotyrannus may be put to rest with further study of the theropod.

Obviously those of us in scienceland are confused on why these two specimens are potentially going into private hands if they're supposed to be scientifically informative. Those two things are somewhat counter-intuitive. Scientific specimens are supposed to be housed publicly in order to make their examination by later generations of researchers actually possible. Putting fossils into private hands does not encourage such a thing; it essentially prohibits the specimen from research until such a time as it is returned to easy access.

The issue that had been sneaking under the radar were Lots 1001-1012, which were "Recently deaccessioned from a major American museum collection". This week the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the blogosphere took notice and aimed their criticism of this potential sale directly at the museum who is doing this: the San Diego Natural History Museum. These twelve specimens have been either on display or in the collections of the SDNHM for years and at least one of them has been published in the scientific literature (Lot 1006, possibly SDSNH 63.01 or 63.02). If they go into private hands, then they will disappear from research access for an indeterminate time.

So far one of the specimens, Lot 1004, has been withdrawn from auction. So it's entirely possible that the 11 other specimens might also be withdrawn from auction if enough of a fuss is raised on this issue. It seems like the best place to raise a fuss is here, unless you're in San Diego, in which case maybe you can just meet with the SDNHM's board of directors and ask them why they are okay with this travesty.

UPDATED 16th of November 0852MST: the SDNHM explains their actions. To quote partially,

The deaccession was fully vetted through a process involving several steps, including review of our internal collections and deaccessioning policies, input from the American Alliance of Museums, and approval from the SDNHM Board of Directors.


While these fossils have historical significance in that they were collected by Charles Sternberg, and it is our hope that they remain in the public trust, it is our opinion that they do not add significantly to the evolutionary and scientific history of these groups of organisms.

The American Alliance of Museums is apparently really bad at their job if they gave any input supporting this. Opinions on significance aside: have any of these specimens been published in the scientific literature? If yes, then putting them into a position where they might not be in the public trust anymore is scientifically irresponsible; it is purposely ending scientific investigation and re-examination of those specimens.

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