Sunday, January 2, 2011


First Voice:  I want it, I want it, I want it.
Second Voice:  You can’t have it.
         ~ Pete Townshend, Magic Bus

Against stupidity the very gods
Themselves contend in vain.
         ~ Friedrich Schiller, The Maid of Orleans

[Note:  Portions of this piece, including the title, were edited after the initial posting.]

Recently, a store in nearby Frederick, Maryland, lost a trilobite fossil to a shoplifter’s five-finger discount.  The 400 million year old fossil, which carried a price tag of $480, was apparently carefully lifted out of its display case and taken for a ride.  I was struck by the amount of press interest in this story, particularly when I didn’t think there was much to learn from it.  In contrast, there are fossil heists that have a thing or two to teach.  More on those in a moment.

In this instance, not unexpectedly the local town paper, the Frederick News Post, covered the story, but so did the Washington Post and the Associated Press, whose wire story was picked up widely.  United Press International carried it as well, though it managed to relocate the store to Virginia.  A local Maryland TV station covered the story on its website, complete with a picture of what may be fossils but certainly aren’t trilobites, much less the one that went missing.

Why would anyone care about this story beyond the very immediate area where folks might know the victimized store owner?  The value of the trilobite wasn’t huge, and the theft of a fossil from a store certainly doesn’t qualify as a man bites dog story.  The press didn’t appear to have been seduced by the opportunity to indulge in wordplay, though the AP did succumb a bit with this line:  “Police in Frederick are asking people to keep their eye peeled for a hot rock with a prehistoric degree.”  And the store owner couldn’t resist; he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying the trilobite “happened to walk away.”  Pretty mild stuff.

So, why the interest?  I don’t really have a clue, though I suspect this was a case of a self-respecting trilobite actually walking away in order to escape a store replete with crystals, hand crafted soaps, and “clever wood signs.”

Never Played with Country Joe and the Fish

Fossil thefts can be justifiably big news, particularly when the scientific and financial value of pilfered specimens is high, or the scale of the malfeasance is grand.  The theft of spectacular dinosaur fossils from federal and private land by Nate Murphy was one such recent story, covered internationally and in-depth.  Until the nasty truth came out, Murphy, an amateur paleontologist and commercial fossil collector, had widespread acclaim and star status for his scientifically and financially valuable (think in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) dinosaur finds.  He is a colorful character, considered almost larger than life, that is, until his house of cards fell in.  Apparently, one of his favored tools of the trade was deceit, particularly about where he was finding the fossils.

To me, among the most serious consequences of these crimes was the damage done to the relationship between professional and amateur paleontologists.  I guess when the financial variable is added to the paleontological equation, things can go out of balance.  Unfortunately, the reluctance of some professionals to welcome amateurs into the field is strengthened by Murphy’s exploits.

Not only were some of most renowned finds revealed to be thefts, but it turned out what he told of his background was often a tissue of lies.  Sadly, no, he never played with Country Joe and the Fish.  (Give me an F, give me an O, give me an S . . . .)

(Detailed background on the case appeared in 2009 in the Billings Gazette in a four-part series by reporter Ed Kemmick.  The series appeared on May 3, 4, 5, and 6, 2009.)

Artist and the Dinosaur Egg Fossil

The Otago Museum graces Dunedin, New Zealand (on the South Island).  Visited by some 300,000 people every year, this natural history museum offers exhibits exploring, among other topics, local Maori and Pacific cultures, animal life of the region, and the area’s paleontological history.  Were I to visit New Zealand (that is, when money becomes no object), the museum would be on my must-see list.  The highlight of the visit for me might well be the Animal Attic, housed in the Victorian Gallery on the top floor of the museum.  This is a faithful reproduction of a gallery and its display cases from the museum in the 1870s.  The gallery is organized around the Victorian era’s understanding of evolution, taking visitors from the simplest organisms to evolution’s crowning glory – human beings.

The museum’s top floor Victorian paean to the supposed pinnacle of creation was dramatically undercut one morning last year when, on the ground floor, an exemplar of this evolutionary process was busy stealing a fossil dinosaur egg from the museum’s gift shop.  Stupidity was at work.  This story generated lots of local coverage in New Zealand, with little beyond that, though it should have.

Unlike the trilobite disappearing from the Frederick, Maryland store, I think the Otago Museum dinosaur egg heist offers many levels of attractive complexity.

The story can be followed in the Otago Daily Times and it’s a fine one.  (The initial stories ran on August 5 and 6, 2010.)  It begins when museum gift shop staff discover that, shortly after the doors to the museum open for the morning, a dinosaur egg fossil has disappeared.  The egg, on sale for $1,700 in New Zealand dollars (a bit more than $1,300 U.S. dollars), was from a Hadrosaurus and laid sometime during the Cretaceous Period (146 to 65 million years ago).  Not a New Zealand fossil, rather something collected in China and purchased by the museum from a so-called “fossil supplier.”

The theft occurred on a Tuesday morning and, two days later, the egg was dropped off at the Dunedin central police station by a man who left the fossil in a shopping bag on an unstaffed counter.

Here’s one of the lovely wrinkles of this case – the ubiquity of security cameras and the obliviousness of the thief to them.  When he first struck at the museum gift shop, his every action was caught by security cameras.  Watching this footage (included in a 3News TV story) is akin to watching the grossly exaggerated movements of an actor in a movie from the silent film era.  Under the watchful eye of one camera, the thief looks around in a way sure to attract attention had anyone been around.  Then he suddenly reaches for the egg on the display and drops it into a bag.  He marches out of the museum, exposing a wonderful full face frontal view for yet another camera.  Two days later, after . . . what? remorse? strikes him, he slips into a police station with the egg in a plastic bag and hopes to do a stealth return.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t stop to think that police stations also might have security cameras and, once again, he makes no attempt to disguise himself (at least he could have worn a hoodie).  He leaves another very clear image for posterity.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the police to arrest a suspect, an artist from Invercargill (a town further south along the coast), and charge him with the crime (news story here).  Curiously, the fossil egg wasn’t the only ill-gotten gain he was arrested for; he also was charged with shoplifting some art books from a shop in another town.  Still, the outcome of all of this is a bit dissatisfying.  According to one report (the outcome is buried among the drug convictions), he was convicted of the art book shoplifting, but the charge of stealing the dinosaur egg, an act caught so plainly on video, was withdrawn.  Was there something more to the story, something that militated against prosecution, something that the media didn’t cover because it had moved on to more exciting things than the workings of the legal system?  I would love to know his motive.  Was it art related?

Perhaps it was having the cautionary tale of Nate Murphy in mind that it struck me as incongruous in the dinosaur egg case that the museum was in the business of selling fossils in the first place.  I think there may be some potential for conflict with their conservation and research missions when natural history museums engage in even this mild kind of open commerce in fossils.  (I know this smacks of blaming the victim.)  I understand that selling fossils in museum gift shops raises funds that support the museums’ missions and may nurture interest in paleontology.  Admittedly, these particular commercial transactions may be de minimis in the scheme of things.  Still, through their sale of fossils, are museums implicitly endorsing the treatment of fossils as primarily objects of commerce?  At a minimum, the Nate Murphy story shows there certainly are instances when fossils aren't appropriately bought and sold.  I would hope that museums take the sale of fossils in their gift shops as an opportunity to educate the buying public about provenance, legal collecting, and the like.  Perhaps they do.

Surprisingly, the local media did not fall prey to creative wordplay in covering this story.  Well, there were a few exceptions, such as this excerpt from one story:

Otago Museum staff are thrilled to have their fossilised dinosaur egg back, but would like to see the person who stole it caught.  Dunedin police yesterday were hatching a plan to do just that.

Or this headline:

Police crack case of stolen dinosaur egg.

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