It’s been interesting to follow this week’s story of the “discovery” of the fossil named ‘Ida‘, almost as much for the detailing of the deal, with obvious parallels to the trade in archaeological finds, as for the consideration of the gains in evolutionary knowledge promised by this unique specimen.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/may/19/fossil-ida-missing-link-discovery

According to the Guardian of the 24th May, a National Geographic photographer had seen, but had been refused permission to photograph the same fossil 10 years ago. It was originally dug out of the Messel pit, near Darmstadt, in Germany in 1983. We can only speculate on the impetus behind its eventual release to the world, but a payment of $1million was agreed between the collector’s dealer and a palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum in Oslo. Two German museums had previously rejected the fossil because of the prohibitive amount demanded.

It’s worth quoting the following, from the later Guardian article by Ian Sample:

“…she has already shed light on the murky world of fossil dealing. This is an international business, where middlemen, who often work with unnamed buyers and sellers, negotiate staggering sums of money for fossils that are sometimes of uncertain provenance and legality. While academics spend years unearthing and characterising fossils to further our knowledge of life’s history, there are private fossil hunters driving around with picks and shovels, intent on grabbing what they can to sell to the highest bidder.”

In fossil hot-spots around the world and particularly where local regulations are either nonexistent or ineffective, specimens are sourced and sold on, often disappearing into private collections. In many cases portions of fossils, divided in the course of excavation, are sold separately. It is debatable whether the occasional, expensive success story outweighs these losses to knowledge through dismemberment or concealment. ‘Ida’ spent 26 years, if ownership was constant, on a dentist’s wall.