Illicit trade - Museums Association

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Illicit trade


A museum that collects geological specimens is considering attending a number of commercial mineral and fossil fairs held in different parts of the world, which are mainly attended by dealers and private collectors.

The museum knows that some specimens which turn up at these events are smuggled out of their country of origin. In some cases they were dug up in ways which irretrievably destroy contextual evidence.

While they do not support such practices, the museum believes there may be a valid argument for museum palaeontologists at least to attend these fairs.

They believe it may be preferable for material that could be unique to science to enter a public collection where it can be the subject of proper scientific research, rather than for museums to turn their backs and allow it to disappear into the cabinets of private collectors. They approach the ethics committee for advice.


A common ethical question in all areas of human activity is whether or not ends should justify means. Buying and working with illicit specimens may advance your particular branch of investigation in the short term. But at what cost?

There are numerous examples of the damage that can be caused by unsanctioned and illegal digs. For example, the Liaoning is an area of China uniquely valuable for the rich palaeontological evidence it holds. An article in the national press told the story of how enterprising farmers in Liaoning learned to exploit a lucrative Western market in fossils.

Not only did they remove from context large numbers of “décor fossils” for sale, but they started to “create” specimens to meet demand.

They developed a feel for what fossil trophy hunters craved and assembled a fake “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds.

It was smuggled out of China, sold at a commercial mineral and fossil fair and duped some of the otherwise reputable popular science publishing community.

In this case, the private museum and the scientists involved thought they were working for the advancement of science. Seduced by the apparent significance of the specimen, they paid scant regard to the legitimacy of the item’s extraction, its export or sale.

Through its association with the illicit trade in natural history specimens and the circulation of scientifically misleading “doctored” or fake items which the trade generates, one internationally regarded publication paid a heavy price in loss of public credibility and damage to its reputation.

Similar behaviour by museums risks compromising public confidence both in the moral integrity of the museum and the material evidence it presents. There may, perhaps, be some validity in the argument that museum personnel should monitor what goes on at and what passes through commercial fossil fairs where illicit or illegal items are known to circulate.

Buying at such events is, however, imprudent at the least and, in the opinion of many, irresponsible.

The Code of Ethics states clearly in para 2.4 that museums should “conduct due diligence to verify the ownership of any item prior to purchase or loan” and in para 2.5 that museums should “reject any item for purchase … if there is any suspicion that it was wrongfully taken during a time of conflict, stolen, illicitly exported or illicitly traded.”

In cases like this it is useful to remember that it is not only science that can be undermined by supporting a trade that decontextualises an irreplaceable cultural resource.

The Chinese worker who prises the specimen from the rock face may be paid as little as $10 for an item that will fetch $10, 000 from the final buyer, raising further questions about the equity of this trade.

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