Purchase photos

Sternberg fossils on auction block

11/15/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

A New York auction house will be selling a bit of Kansas next week, and Mike Everhart is none too happy with the idea.

But neither is the paleontological community, especially the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

On Tuesday, New York auction house Bonham's will be selling as many as 11 fossils collected -- some prepared for display -- by Charles H. Sternberg, the patriarch of the well-known fossil collecting family that included Levi, Charles M. and George, the former director of Sternberg Museum. Their family name now graces Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, although fossils collected by Charles Sternberg and other members of the family are on display in museums across the world.

The fossils going on the auction block hail from the San Diego Natural History Museum and include several pieces Sternberg adjunct curator Mike Everhart would love to get his hands on.

It's just he won't have the money to bid on the pieces.

Already, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has issued a statement sharply critical of the San Diego museum's decision to sell the fossils.

SVP cites its member standards: "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," the organization went on to say. "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."

Bids are expected to start at somewhere between $100,000 and $125,000 on a Xiphactinus collected in the 1920s in western Kansas. The specimen measures 13 feet long.

That's an important specimen, Everhart said, because it's been cited as the source of information in at least one scientific research paper.

If the Xiphactinus is purchased by a private individual, access to it could be lost to the scientific community, he said.

There's also a 17-foot long mosasaur -- also from Kansas -- that has a starting price of somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000.

Both the Xiphactinus and mosasaur were collected and prepared by Charles Sternberg, the Bonham's auction site said.

"This specimen has been in the collection of an American museum since the 1920s," the auction catalog says of the mosasaur. "The preparation style and presentation is typical of Charles Sternberg's work. The specimen shows evidence of original restoration requiring re-working."

Other Sternberg fossils going on the auction block include a panel of swimming crinoids, a mosasaur tail with the backing board on the fossil bearing Sternberg's name and address of Hayes, Kansas (sic) written in pencil.

They are to sell for $5,000 and $1,500, respectively. The tail of a hadrosaur dinosaur also is up for sale, with a starting price of $3,500.

There's a large Xiphactinus skull, "in the original framework that was used for museum display." It will start at $2,500.

The skull of a ceratopsian dinosaur has been pulled from the auction, and Everhart said it will be going to a Canadian museum near where it was collected.

Everhart struggles with the idea of seeing Sternberg fossils perhaps go into the hands of private collectors.

"Historically, I consider them all priceless," Everhart said, "because they were collected by Charles Sternberg."

He's quick to say the "big fish" -- the Xiphactinus -- is a valuable specimen because it has been cited in scientific literature.

But Everhart said the Sternberg museum hasn't been offered the Sternberg-collected fossils and doesn't have the money to bid on them.

He's not sure what the value of the fossils might be, other than the starting prices assigned to them.

"Whatever the market will bear," he said.