In their motion to dismiss in the "Free Tarby" dinosaur case, one of the arguments of the lawyers dealers is that the sale of illicitly exported fossils from Mongolia "should not" be subject to any legal sanctions in the US because "since the fall of Communism" fossils from China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazachstan have been on open sale on the international market. Well, the first thing that will be news to a US court no doubt will be that Communism has "fallen" in the People's Republic of China. But yes indeed, fossils from China are on sale - despite the fact that legislation is there to prevent that. Never mind, dealers have a way around that: Fake Chinese Fossils. On other websites, the "non-export of fossils from China" is used as a selling-point, suggesting that collectors are aware of the existence of export regulations.
The same goes for Russia. There are laws against the export of material from the country - for example Ediacaran (Vendian) fossils. Indeed as noted on a forum, "all countries that have large sites containing impressions of Vendian metazoans (Russia, Australia, Namibia, and Canada) have forbidden commercial collecting and export of the impressions" and the localities were given protection. Yet there at least five on "open sale" on EBay as I write. The fact that something is "on open sale" (ie nobody has shut down an auction) does not make it legal. So again, to trust the "open sale" argument means to trust that all dealers and all collectors know what is, and what is not, covered by the existing laws. Do they, when even Washington and New York 'cultural property' lawyers do not seem so clear about this?
Here's a rather skimpy and incomplete presentation from a Massachusetts college webpage of "international fossil regulations" which nevertheless shows that traders and collectors should be aware that laws can and do exist. The same author presents an overview of fossil theft and smuggling:
Fossils are smuggled from China, Russia, Australia and then sold to wealthy private collectors. Smuggling is big business in the fossil world. Many countries, such as China, Mongolia and South Africa do not permit the export of their fossils. Laws and promised punishment are often not enough to deter fossil poachers, as the price received for the fossils is likely to be a far greater sum than any fine.Exactly like antiquities then.
There was a recent case on the Canadian border in which a dealer from Canada on his way to a 2007 fossil trade show in Arizona had his fossils taken as infringing the 'Cultural Property Export and Import Act' and the 'Customs Act'. Here the items reportedly had not been properly declared ('Fossil export attempt means fine for Calgary man', CBC News October 4, 2010). I presume other fossil dealers hear about cases like these, through word of mouth or trade associations.
Unlike Messers Tompa and McCullough, I do not think a nanny state should contact each dealer individually and make sure he is told by the US government of all the laws of every country that has fossils and laws. I rather think this is something dealers and collectors should however get sorted out for themselves.
Vignette: In the lobboblogger parallel Universe, perhaps the People's Republic of China has ceased to exist, but back over here in Reality it is alive and kicking.