Bone of contention

Science - Sarah Jane Checkland unearths the truth about fossil-rustling

Before Charles Darwin and his friends came along, fossils did not register on the human consciousness. Any indication that the world might have first been populated by creatures other than man was sacrilege to anyone brought up on the Book of Genesis. With the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, however, everything changed. Suddenly, any weird and wonderful trace of prehistoric life was avidly acquired by collectors with an inquiring mind. Most desirable of all were fossil vertebrates, or bones, small examples of which were lovingly assembled in private cabinets of curiosities, while large ones gravitated to the various natural history museums then being built. It never crossed the minds of the first enthusiasts that money could be made from these stony remains.

Nowadays, Mammon has caught up with mammoth, and fossil-hunting has taken on a sinister aspect. Although, on the face of it, old bones are the least likely adjuncts to the art market - and certainly the least lovely - the 1970s television series Land of the Lost, followed by the Hollywood film Jurassic Park, generated a worldwide obsession with dinosaurs and created a thriving new market. During the past decade, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago paid an astonishing $8.36m at Sotheby's for the Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed Sue, while the North Carolina State Museum paid $3m for a skeleton of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis. Even the internet auction company eBay has got in on the act, offering fossil dinosaur eggs at a starting price of $250. Inevitably, this boom has been accompanied by a rise in fossil-rustling.

Worst hit have been various American establishments, including the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Emery County, Utah, which in 1996 lost more than $48,000 worth of dinosaur material, including allosaurus femurs and vertebrae from plant-eating sauropod dinosaurs - along with all the scientific information they brought with them. As John Bird, the quarry director, said: "The thieves have taken away this heritage from our children." This was followed by the disappearance of numerous amber specimens from the travelling exhibition "The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and the Lost World", including 40-million-year-old pieces containing spiders, flies, beetles and even a strand of mammoth hair.

Meanwhile, Russian museums have been widely plundered, with more than 50 items being lifted from the Paleontological Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and several mammoth tusks from the Zoological Institute in St Petersburg. And so the list continues, with thefts ranging from Germany to Australia to Argentina. In most cases, the fossils were removed in professional operations and have, in effect, disappeared on to the black market.

There are exceptions, however, where the villains were either too amateurish or too bold. Last year, two thieves smashed a window at the Quest Gallery in Banff, Alberta, Canada, and made off with a two-metre mammoth tusk worth $60,000, only to get caught red-handed when they offered it for sale to its original owner. When a gang descended on the Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Utah, one member distracted the ranger while another plucked part of a foot bone of the giant plant-eater diplodocus from the quarry face, in full view of dozens of fellow visitors. Fortunately, a German tourist protested so loudly that the villain was obliged to extract the bone from under his shirt and hand it back.

Daniel J Chure, a research scientist at the Jensen National Monument, has become an energetic campaigner on behalf of missing fossils everywhere. Sadly, he is up against his own kind, for all too many curators are so mortified by the thefts that they fail to tell anyone, and thus pander to the black market with its reliance on secrecy.

In another instance in 1994, the University of California did, in fact, call in the FBI when its Tyrannosaurus rex jawbone was stolen, but the investigation was kept quiet for fear of driving the thief - and the fossil - underground. Luckily, the strategy worked when the villains started advertising casts of the jawbone - complete with its three huge front teeth - by mail catalogue. Pursuing the casts through Belgium and Germany, the FBI finally traced the original jaw to a European dealer in June 1999, and seized it. To David Lindberg, the director of Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology, the episode was the fossil equivalent of "forging a van Gogh and then flooding the market with it".

But this was a one-off, and Chure believes it is essential that curators quickly come clean and publicise their losses. He is campaigning for an international database of missing fossils, similar to those that operate in the art market proper. Another essential, he says, is for curators to start "gamma watermarking" their fossils by implanting them with tiny digital codes new on the market. In other words, they should stop treating exhibits as specimens and regard them as valuable masterpieces made by that great genius, Mother Nature.

Sarah Jane Checkland's Ben Nicholson: the vicious circles of his life and art is published by John Murray (£25)