How to Ethically Buy Fossils Online (and Not Get Ripped Off)

Fossil skeleton of Dinosaur king Tyrannosaurus
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If you aspire to own a rare T-Rex dinosaur fossil, be aware that it will cost you millions of dollars, take up 30 feet in your home, and almost certainly earn you criticism from the paleontology community. (As Indiana Jones would say — “That belongs in a museum!”)

Yes, someone actually paid $2.3 million for a 29-foot-long dinosaur fossil at a Paris auction in 2018, and just last year, a mostly intact, 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex fossil sold for a record $31.8 millionBut the one-percenter’s obsession with privately purchasing fossils is nothing new. Leonardo DiCaprio has been fixated on fossils since 2007 when he was outbid by fellow superstar Nicolas Cage on a 67-million-year-old dinosaur head. Leo also sold a separate dinosaur head from his personal collection to actor Russell Crowe a few years back.

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So yeah, the high-end dinosaur market can be a bit of a Hollywood boys club. Like a rare Picasso, some fossils represent exquisite and valuable additions to high-end, premium collections. But according to Dr. Roy E. Plotnick — a professor emeritus of invertebrate paleontology at the University of Illinois Chicago — that’s a slippery slope.

“It becomes an object of art rather than an object of science,” Plotnick says. “It kicked off this idea that fossils are valuable. And so when you start thinking fossils are valuable, then it becomes, ‘Oh, I have a fossil; it must be valuable.’ It distorted the entire field.”

Even if you’re interested in buying fossils — albeit more common and affordable ones — there’s a lot you need to know about these ancient art-ifacts before shopping around. As Plotnick’s sentiment indicates, the private purchase of fossils is highly controversial and contested within the paleontology community, which fights to keep these rare artifacts in museums for educational and scientific purposes.

If you’re still dead set on adding some prehistoric flair to your living room, there are several reputable online dealers where you can shop for fossils of all kinds and price points, and we’ve included links to some of these dealers below. If you have your heart set on buying a megalodon tooth or a 50-million-year-old Eocene Era fossil fish, we can point you in the right direction. But in addition to the ethical questions posed by paleontologists, the online fossil market is ripe with opportunities to get both duped and ripped off, so proceed with caution.

We’ll break down the questions and concerns surrounding the private purchase of fossils, chat with a few experts and give you some tips for shopping both ethically and responsibly.

fossil fish plate in museum Licensed from Adobe

  

The Paleontology Perspective

Yes, dinosaurs are pretty awesome. We’re all in agreement on that. And there’s no shame in having an interest in fossils or even collecting legally.

But when celebrities and wealthy private buyers hunt for extremely rare fossils, they push scientific institutions out of the market, leaving limited research opportunities. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) — whose core purpose is to “advance the science of vertebrate paleontology throughout the world” — vocally disapproves of rare, vertebrate fossil sales for this reason, according to SVP president Jessica Theodor.

“We believe that fossils should only be sold if that helps them get into the public trust,” Theodor said. “That means into a museum where fossils can be preserved for long term. If it’s in the public trust, then any research that’s done on it can be replicated.”

This policy certainly applies to rare, high-end vertebrate fossils. But what about the more common, affordable ones?

According to Theodor, the SVP doesn’t have a problem with the sale of non-rare fossils. Some members think all fossils should be sellable. But everyone in the SVP isn’t necessary in agreement there.

“The stance among paleontologists is not unified,” Theodor said.

Plotnick agrees and acknowledges that the private purchase of fossils is where many divisions among paleontologists come in.

“My colleagues in the vertebrate paleontology community feel that there’s a slippery slope there,” Plotnick said. “That any buying and selling opens the door that it’s OK to buy and sell, and therefore that we shouldn’t do it at all in any way, shape or form.”

Plotnick himself buys fossils, but only non-rare specimens intended for his department’s research and teaching collection.

“I don’t on the face of it object to the purchase and sale of common fossils that are not of scientific value,” Plotnick said. “There are billions of fossils, and if someone wants to buy one for 50 cents, who am I to object to that?”

So unless you’re shelling out millions for dinosaurs — like the one in Paris, which hadn’t yet been identified or studied at all by scientists — you’re probably OK to get your fossil collection started.

“Fossils, on the whole, are not rare,” Plotnick said. “We just want to make sure that people know enough about them that if there is something rare, that they know it should go to a museum or some other collections.”

  

Alright, so now you know about paleontology’s complex stance on buying fossils. It turns out there’s another layer of complication here once you factor in the legality of collecting and importing fossils.

In the United States, it’s perfectly legal to collect fossils on private land or public land with the proper permits. You can read up on the Paleontological Resources Protection Act of 2009, which regulates collecting fossils on public land. In Canada, restrictions are much tighter. In addition to her role at the SVP, Theodor serves as a biological sciences professor at the University of Calgary. Alberta’s regulations are primarily monitored by the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Canada’s most extensive fossil collection. It allows anyone to collect obviously visible fossils but requires you to contact the museum to enlist the help of a professional paleontologist for excavating fossils buried in the ground. But even if you find a fossil in Alberta, it’s still technically not yours.

“In Alberta, if you find something on your land, you need to call the museum,” Theodor said. “You can pick it up and keep it, but you hold it in trust for the people of Alberta.”

But even if a fossil was collected authentically, Theodor says, it could have been imported illegally. The SVP is pushing U.S. Customs to act more frequently in these cases.

“A lot of it has to do with the regional context of the area,” Theodor said. “Mongolia has laws against the export of fossils. China actually has laws against the export of fossils, although they’re often violated. Myanmar has laws against the export of fossils, but they’re often not honored.”

As it turns out, that dinosaur head mentioned earlier — the tyrannosaurus bataar that Nicholas Cage outbid DiCaprio for in 2007 — was actually stolen, according to The New York Times. The auction house had obtained it from a man who pleaded guilty to illegally smuggling stolen goods from Mongolia and China, so Cage returned the rare dinosaur head to Mongolia in 2015.

This proves that — even if you’re uninterested in excavating fossils yourself — it’s important to know these regulations when purchasing them. You want to make sure your new specimen was collected and imported legally. Theodor recommends asking online fossil dealers this question straight up.

“Ask the people selling where it was collected,” Theodor said. “‘Was it collected legally?’ That’s a perfectly OK question to ask. You may get lied to. But at least it lets the sellers know that that’s on your radar. And that will raise the education.”  

  

Where to Buy Fossils Online

Now that we’ve gone through the much-needed context for understanding the ethics and risks of buying fossils, we can get into the online market. There are a bunch of different types of fossils, but here are a few of the more common types of fossils you’ll find for sale online:

  • Amber: Fossilized resin of trees, often with plants or insects inside
  • Ammonites: Spiral-shelled mollusks related to squid and octopus
  • Megalodon: Teeth of a now-extinct species of shark
  • Mosasaur: Huge marine reptiles with sharp teeth and long tails
  • Petrified Wood: Ancient wood turned into stone
  • Trilobites: A diverse group of extinct marine arthropods

Prices vary a ton, but on the lower end, you can get some pretty sweet fossils for under $50. Amber, which you can buy for as low as $10-20, makes for a colorful collectible but comes with serious moral complications. For one, the sourcing practices of amber in Myanmar are controversial, as it is mined in a region where the country’s military has violently battled the Kachin, an ethnic minority, for years. The sales of amber, then, may indirectly fund Myanmar’s military in this conflict. There are also tons of amber fakes out there, according to Plotnick. So do your research if you’re interested in amber.

mosquito in amber fossil Licensed from Adobe

Going up in price, you can snag some unique dinosaur teeth for around $45. On the higher end, certain rare trilobites and megalodon teeth can run you upwards of $3,000. Some Ice Age skulls from one of the sellers listed below will run you tens of thousands. Generally speaking, the larger or rarer it is, the more expensive (and risky) it will be.

“Don’t spend hundreds of dollars on something you can’t actually pick up, touch, look at, examine,” Plotnick said. “That’s foolish.”

And don’t count on paleontologists or museums to help you determine if an online price for a specimen is fair. Placing a value on a particular fossil, Plotnick says, continues the slippery slope of all fossils holding value, which is what’s led to those multi-million dollar vertebrate specimen sales in the first place.

“That’s the one thing I will not do — I will not be an appraiser,” Plotnick said. “If you are interested in (a fossil) and are willing to spend the money, go ahead.”

There are hundreds of online fossil dealers, but we’ve sourced six of our favorites below. With the exception of 1stDibs, all of these fossil dealers are members of the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences (keep reading for more details on this organization). And in case you haven’t gotten the message so far — do your research, be suspicious, and know that this market is loaded with fraud, risk and ethical quandaries.

Happy (and hopefully prudent) shopping.

  

1. Fossilera

Branded as the world’s largest online fossil retailer, Fossilera is a reputable dealer offering fossils of all kinds. It boasts a robust collection of specimens, from classic choices like megalodon teeth and amber to more unique offerings like plant, fish and seafood fossils. Fossilera offers an Authenticity Guarantee, which ensures it only deals with trusted sources and suppliers, along with a 30-day return policy. And in case your credenza needs a little sparkle, Fossilera offers an extensive collection of crystals, too. Fossilera also boasts more than 30,000 Instagram followers, if that does anything for your perception of their legitimacy.

fossilera 7.6″ Fossil Oreodont (Merycoidodon) Skull – Wyoming Courtesy of Fossilara

Fossilera

  

2. 1stDibs

1stDibs is an auction website that specializes in collectibles, antiques, artwork and rare furniture. Antiques dealers from all over the world use 1stDibs to sell their goods online, and we’ve written about some of the site’s stranger offerings previously. 1stDibs is a great place to go if you’re interested in high-end antiques and collectibles, and you can also find a small selection of fossils for sale. Because 1stDibs works with reputable dealers, it’s one of the best places to buy fossils online, though they aren’t cheap.

Occasionally you can find dinosaur fossils for sale, but the site also has megalodon teeth and other ancient plant and animal fossils. Prices start at around $2,100 for common fossils and up to 5- or 6-figures for rarer specimens and dinosaur fossils. We’ve included some options below.

50 Million Year Old Eocene Era Fossil Fish Mural in Stone, from Wyoming

fossil fish Courtesy of 1stDibs

50 Million Year Old Eocene Era Fossil Fish Mural in Stone

$2,400.00

Fossilized Tooth of Megalodon Shark

megalodon shark tooth fossil for sale Courtesy of 1stDibs

Fossilized Tooth of Megalodon Shark

$2,105.84

Frida Palm and Fish Fossil Plate

frida palm and fish fossil Courtesy of 1stDibs

Frida Palm and Fish Fossil Plate

$35,097.33

Fossilized Skull of an Edmontosaurus Dinosaur

Fossilised Skull of an Edmontosaurus Dinosaur Courtesy of 1stDibs

Fossilized Skull of an Edmontosaurus Dinosaur

$67,386.87

  

One of our favorite things about PaleoDirect — another AAPS-certified dealer — is its commitment to identifying and denouncing fraud and misidentification in the online fossil marketplace. Seriously, aside from its large and diverse collection of specimens for sale (including some extraordinary Ice Age fossils), PaleoDirect has a ton of information, from dating and collecting fossils to the aforementioned resource on identifying fakes. This serves as an excellent primer for anyone new to the fossil game and should adequately educate you before purchasing.

PaleoDirect/Time Vault Gallery Finest European Ice Age Fossil Steppe Wisent Bison Skull Courtesy of PaleoDirect/Time Vault Gallery

PaleoDirect

  

4. Steve’s Fossil Shark Teeth

As far as fossils go, shark teeth are one of the most badass specimens you can own. The megalodon, as we mentioned, is a now-extinct species of shark. And though scientists have only been able to study it from its remains, it’s widely regarded as one of the most powerful predators to have ever lived, with sharp teeth and an insanely powerful bit force. Those teeth — generally between 3-4 inches long — cost anywhere between $50 and $250 from Steve’s Fossil Shark Teeth. Fair warning that Steve’s website leaves something to be desired.

Steve's Fossil Shark Teeth Courtesy of Steve's Fossil Shark Teeth

Steve's Fossil Shark Teeth

Check Prices

  

5. Fossils UK

Given the somewhat complicated relationship between academics and sellers in the fossil community, you’ll be encouraged to know that Byron Blessed founded fossils UK. He has both a bachelor’s degree in Geology and a Master’s in Paleobiology. That, along with its AAPS membership, surely boosts the site’s credibility. Its collection of fossils, minerals, crystals and ancient artifacts measures up with other sellers on this list. But Fossils UK stands out with its website design, head and shoulders above the competition, with its clean design and simple interface. If you’re in the UK, Fossils UK also offers fossil hunting tours.

fossils UK British Upper Lias, Lower Jurassic Ammonite from Somerset, England – Harpoceras serpentinium Courtesy of Fossils UK

Fossil's UK

  

6. Fossilicious

The name alone makes Fossilicious a winner. But aside from that pithy branding, the site offers an extensive array of different fossils, rocks and minerals, in addition to a nice collection of handy display accessories. Founded by a team of teachers, Fossilicious is also a fully-fledged education resource, with children’s books, earth science curriculums, rock test kits and two spinoff websites with more information on fossils and geology.

fossilicious Carcharodontosaurus tooth 2.5 inches Courtesy of Fossilicious

Fossilicious

  

Buyer Beware: How to Buy Fossils Online and Not Get Ripped Off

The case of Nicholas Cage turning over an illegal dinosaur head proves that, even on the highest end of the fossil market, opportunities to get scammed run rampant. So you can imagine, then, that buying fossils on the internet — the scammy-est place of all — is an inherently risky venture.

Sometimes the seller hasn’t done their homework. Or the locality data is faked. Or pseudofossils get misidentified. Or sellers fabricate the specimen itself by adding plaster or other inauthentic details. According to Theodor, the likelihood of fraud is extremely high when purchasing online.

“It’s a question of buyer beware,” Theodor said. “Particularly online when you can’t even handle the object and see if there’s a funny line or a different texture or something. That makes it really challenging.”

Theodor recommends you educate yourself to the point where you can recognize the type of fossil you’re interested in buying. Learn what common pseudofossils look like, and understand the common attributes of fossils from the area where you intend to purchase them. Be suspicious, she says, particularly when the seller makes outlandish claims about a fossil’s origin.

“You can still get bamboozled, but at least you tried,” Theodor said. “And you’ve let the seller know that some people care about those things. In the long run, that may be the best you could do.”

That said, we recommend avoiding eBay. That’s not to say there aren’t genuine fossils to be found there. Some fossil enthusiasts do shop on eBay. But unfortunately, there just isn’t a guaranteed way to verify what you’re getting is authentic. The site lacks regulation and control.

“People are very good at making fakes that look real,” Plotnick said. “And unless you have the training to examine them and the technology, that’s hard to determine that they’re not real.”

With all of this in mind, we suggest you check out the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, an organization comprising more than 300 different verified online fossil dealers. The AAPS was launched in 1978 to promote ethical collecting and selling practices and cooperation between the academic and selling community. The AAPS members — a list of fossil dealers which can be found online — apply, pay annual dues and agree to abide by the association’s code of ethics.

According to George Winters, the administrative director of the AAPS, sellers with a track record of malpractice will be rejected by the board of directors. The AAPS will also enforce that code of ethics when necessary.

“We will react to complaints of a member,” Winters said. “If they don’t deal ethically with a customer, we’ll step in.”

  

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