Policy Statement

Impending Public Auction of Vertebrate Fossils by the San Diego Natural History Museum


It has come to the attention of SVP that the San Diego Natural History Museum  (SDNHM) is poised to sell 12 lots of its vertebrate fossils collected by well-known paleontologist and fossil hunter, Charles H. Sternberg, at public auction through Bonhams on Nov. 19th, 2013.  A catalogue for this sale can be viewed online.

The bylaws of SVP hold our members to this professional standard: “The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into or keeps them within a public trust."  By offering these vertebrate fossils at public auction, their loss to the public trust is virtually guaranteed.  Such an action also supports the commercialization of vertebrate fossils that has become so destructive to our science. It is equally disheartening to see the legacy of Charles H. Sternberg used to promote the commercial sale of these museum fossils.
    
Although we understand that de-accessioning museum specimens is occasionally necessary for the health and well-being of repository institutions, SVP feels strongly that de-accessioned scientifically significant vertebrate fossils should be sold or traded to another public institution and not to the private sector.  This is an enormous concern to paleontology globally because the permanency and accessibility of scientific data are at stake, threatening to undermine the fundamental function of science-based museums.  One of the specimens up for auction (Xiphactinus) is thought to be one referenced in the literature at least twice.  Because the Sternberg collection has a long history (and is also of historical significance), it is also possible that other fossils in the upcoming auction have been referenced in the scientific literature that we are not aware of at the present time.  The decision to sell these fossils at public auction was not that of any paleontologist at the SDNHM.

Reproducibility of data is the cornerstone of any scientific inquiry, and for paleontology, this requires the permanence of specimens and their continued availability for re-examination.  SVP has sent a letter to the President and Chair of the Board of Directors of the SDNHM expressing our dismay over their actions.