Sunday 20 May 2012

Heritage Auctions Defies Texas Court Order

Despite a Texas judge's order halting the sale at the request of the Mongolian government, the Mongolian fossil Tyrannosaur skeleton from sold for $1,052,500 in a Manhattan auction on Sunday (Heritage Auctions Press Release May 20th 2012).  Mongolia's Texas-based attorney who attempted to dissuade auctioneers from going ahead with the sale was apparently told by the auctioneers that he had "no authority from the New York judicial system", and asked to leave the room  and the auction proceeded. No mention is made of whether any collectors or dealers walked out with him in a sign of solidarity with the ideals of responsible collecting of geoheritage material. 

David Herskowitz,  director of natural history at Heritage Auctions, is quoted in the  Daily Mail, as saying "The specimen was found over 10 years ago in the Gobi desert and is owned by a fossil collector from Dorset." The Mail asserts that the fossils were stored for "two years" (so where were they in the meantime?) in a Dorset warehouse, property of "a British collector". It was, the newspaper says, "found in Mongolia and acquired by the collector in 2005 [...] He assembled and mounted half of the specimen but because the project proved quite expensive he struck a deal with a fellow enthusiast in America" (that's what the mail calls him, Herskowitz called him a fossil dealer)  "to help fund it. The half-built dinosaur was shipped across the Atlantic to Florida where it was completed". It was then placed on sale to recover the costs - in other words, the collectors were not acquiring material for their own collections ("research") but saw a money-making opportunity in the stones taken from a far-off land. The pre-sale estimate was $750 000.

How did the specimens ('natural history objects') leave the British Isles, since they fall above the financial threshold for export licences for ancient material and were dispatched to a non-EU destination? Is there a British export licence issued, and if so, why was legal import not determined?  British exporters are warned that before applying for an export licence:
It is essential that you understand the implications of any legislation in the country of origin, and any intermediate countries, including export control. You have to ensure that taking the object out of the country will not breach that legislation.
Was that ensured in the case of the export of a freshly dug-up Tyrannosaurus Bator skeleton being exported from Dorset to Florida? How was that documented? Who are the "Dorset collector" and "Florida dealer" who have just made a packet out of selling Mongolian fossils?

Can you imagine the scene in the New York salesroom? Numerous dealers and collectors were there to buy trophy specimens. If they did not know earlier about the odium around the sale of the Bator fossil which was the centrepiece of the auction, they would have become aware of it when the auction started and Mongolia's Texas-based attorney Robert Painter, stood up and tried to interrupt the auction, drawing attention to the existing restraining order, and "with the Texas judge on his cell phone, listening and ready to explain his order". Yet nevertheless - such was the greed of the trophy-hungry collectors, and total disregard for whether the specimens had been acquired legally or not, they were so eager to get their hands on them that bidding went well beyond the estimate. The total disregard of these greedy people is summed up by a comment - obviously by an American  (Amber Santos · Lvermore High) - on the USA website under this story: "so cool!!!". Nicking stuff from others is "cool" in America? Where else?

What kind of message did the rich collectors and dealers of the United States of America send to other countries yesterday?

Dan Vergano,'$1,052,500 Tyrannosaur sale proceeds despite court order', USA Today, May 20, 2012
Daily Mail Reporter, 'Waiting to be snapped up, T-Rex's cousin: Near perfect dinosaur skeleton to go under the hammer' Daily Mail 16 May 2012

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