How much are we willing to pay for a fossil?

The outrage expressed by Elwyn Simons and others over the sale of a 47-million-year-old fossil for an enormous sum (Nature 460, 456; 2009) may not be altogether justified.

A fossil's intrinsic value relates to its preservation, rarity, scientific interest and completeness. Arguably, this may be reflected as a commercial value to museums or private collectors.

The price a fossil is likely to fetch is of considerable interest to modern Chinese farmers, for example, as it was to their European predecessors around Bolca in the Italian Alps and Messel in Germany. Their excavations are often crude and can damage the fossil, but they still expect payment from interested professionals.

Worldwide closure of the market would have the unwanted effect of causing illegal trafficking. Regulations regarding fossil finds are necessary.

In Italy, these are very strict: like archaeological objects, fossils belong to the state and cannot be sold. However, their monetary value is decided by professionals appointed by an archaeological board; a small percentage of the sum is then divided between the discoverer and the owner of the land where the fossil was found. This law has proved efficient in protecting our natural and cultural heritage.

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Cioppi, E., Dominici, S. How much are we willing to pay for a fossil?. Nature 462, 984–985 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/462984e

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