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Friday, 4 April 2014

Can palaeoart prevent the over-commercialisation of fossils?

If money was no object, would you buy a sauropod skeleton, or artwork of one? A question to ponder while these Lower Cretaceous rebbachisaurids and 'Angloposeidon' look for water in this desiccating Wealden lake. Prints of this image are available here.
The greatest threat to 21st century palaeontology is the inflating commercialisation of fossils. At least, this the view put forward in a recent article by Kenshu Shimada and colleagues (2014), and I don't disagree with them. While the commercialisation of fossils is not inherently wrong, the explosion in auctioning spectacular fossil specimens, often at prices which are well beyond the reach of the scientific institutions, presents many concerns for palaeontological science. This is more than just jealousy from poor palaeontological institutions: it causes illegal plundering of fossil specimens, locality vandalism and loss of specimen provenance, robbing fossils of almost all scientific worth. Some legitimate scientists are involved in this game, either selling, lending their interpretation to auction lots, or publishing details of privately-owned fossils in peer reviewed literature. The latter, even when done with the best intentions (e.g. Sereno et al. 2009; Tischlinger and Frey 2013) panders to the private fossil market, sending a signal that scientists will accept and make-do with this new status quo. Even museums are getting in on the act, toying with the idea of selling off historically-valuable specimens for funding. At auction, commercial dealers often mislead buyers with scientific over-advertisement to increase lot appeal, making claims which have not been substantiated by genuine scientific investigation. The result has been years of debate over the legalities, economy and ethics of fossil commercialisation, with little evidence of a balance between those wanting to profit from and privatise fossils, and those who want them publicly preserved, studied and shared.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and maybe a radical approach is needed to help settle these debates. Such an idea was pushed forward by Shimada et al. (2014), who proposed that commercialising palaeoart may be a viable alternative to selling spectacular fossils. This is not quite the first time this idea has been mentioned, although I think it's the first time it's been mentioned in print. Shimada et al. do not dwell on the point too long, merely stating that:
"...suggestions have also been made that, similar to the annual meetings of the SVP, our paleontological community can perhaps promote the sales of fossil replicas and 'paleo arts' (e.g., paintings and 3-D models of extinct organisms) as acceptable alternatives [to real fossil specimens]." Shimada et al. 2014, p. 3
Intuitively, this seems like a good idea. Combining the lucrative art market with palaeontology should allow collectors to own fossil-related wares without loss of scientifically-important specimens. Palaeoartists would make money, more specimens would end up in academic institutions, and collectors would obtain rare and valuable items - everyone seems to win in this arrangement. As someone with some experience of working within the palaeoart industry however, I'm not convinced that this plan could be executed in the foreseeable future, nor that it provides a solution to the problems of over-commercialising fossils. There seem to be three problems here: 1) original palaeoart and fossil specimens are not as readily interchanged as some may think; 2) our art is not seen as particularly interesting or varied to wider audiences, and 3) the palaeoart community is simply not in shape to offer the high-value, desirable art required for this bid, and will not be until it receives a lot more support from the scientific community at large.

Tarbosaurus specimen made famous - or more rightly infamous - when put up for auction in 2012. It was ultimately repatriated to Mongolia after palaeontologists pointed out the illegal nature of its exportation from its native country. Image from (shudder) the Daily Mail.

1. Palaeoart cannot compete with genuine fossils for aesthetic appeal or as a status symbol

As with any material item, the ownership of fossils is pursued because of academic interest, the collector mindset of owning unique objects, admiration of the natural beauty and the attainment of status. Fossil specimens, particularly large and spectacular ones, not only meet these criteria but exceed them. They're extremely rare. They cost lots of money to buy and maintain. And they're amazing. Looking at a fossil reminds us of unfathomable depths of time and evolution, and the very limits of our human experience. You don't have to know anything about fossils or palaeontology to be awed by them: their mystery, impressiveness, rarity and worth is obvious to anyone. It's little wonder that fossils can be sold at auction for large sums of money: they're immensely charismatic objects, and make major statements about the taste and wealth of their buyers.

If we intend on replacing fossils with palaeoartworks at auction, the latter needs to replace this appeal. Unfortunately, even the best-executed, most accurate, or most famous palaeoartworks can't inspire the same interest and awe as fossils themselves. That's not because palaeoartists are bad at their jobs, but because fossils and palaeoart are completely different entities. Fossils are natural objects obtained by chance and perseverance, and palaeoart is a human-derived statement about palaeontological science. It seems naive to expect rich buyers to turn from fossils to fossil-related artwork when the two have such different cultural statuses, and I think we are misunderstanding the people buying fossils if we think we can simply swap one for the other. We should probably abandon any hope of palaeoart being fossil substitutes, and realise that we need to sell palaeoart on its own merits.

Like any art, selling palaeoart is dependent on it being a fashionable commodity, culturally significant enough that it seems worth spending money on. Working against palaeoart in this regard is its real lack of status outside of the (largely online) palaeontology community. Palaeoart processes and credibility are poorly understood among the public and its most revered practitioners are entirely unheard of. It seems mostly considered a branch of dry scientific illustration, anonymous visual manifestations of what palaeontologists are imagining at a given time. Other times, palaeoart is seen as art for children, or pseudo-fantasy work with a similar target demographic to science fiction and fantasy media. In short, palaeoart is neither considered fashionable or culturally significant, and is not likely to appeal to the rich companies and celebrities who buy spectacular fossils at auction. The fact that master palaeoartists frequently find it difficult to auction their work at worthwhile prices lends credence to this idea. Sales of high-value palaeoart will not happen until we can demonstrate its cultural significance to people outside of palaeontology, and that's going to be an uphill struggle.

2. Palaeoart is probably too stylistically and compositionally homogenous to appeal to wider audiences

Because some art is sold on the strength of its style or composition, palaeoart may make some headway in the high-stakes open market so long as it offers a range of styles and subjects, with varied compositions and themes. Currently, palaeoart offers quite the opposite however, as it's compositionally and stylistically rather homogenous. Only rarely do palaeoartists deviate from realistic-ish portraits of animals, or animals in landscapes, to more stylistic or abstract waters. To my knowledge, this has never been done for significant financial gain. And yes, while palaeoartists do differ stylistically, it's a marginal difference compared to the spectrum in other branches of art. It's little surprise that palaeoart has entered a deconstructionist phase in recent years because its practitioners have noticed how repetitive and trope-filled a lot of palaeoart is (Conway et al. 2013). From a marketing point of view, this is dangerous territory. It's easy to imagine that many will take the attitude that 'once you've seen one piece of palaeoart, you've seen it all', and if its general style or compositions are not to taste, there's little chance of it being bought. We must remember that our objective here is to make palaeoart appeal as widely as possible, and not only to palaeontologists and dinosaur fans.

Those of us who know palaeoart may argue that it is continually changing and developing, and subject to fashions and trends as much as other artworks. These are mostly related to the methods of reconstruction and changes in science however, which are subtle to the point of near-undetectability for lay audiences. Palaeoartists and palaeoart fans may consider the publication of All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2013) a recent landmark in palaeoart methodology, but for the uninitiated, it's just an excuse to draw extinct animals in different postures or with slightly tweaked anatomy. In short, unless potential buyers are up on palaeontological and palaeoart history - and most aren't - this significance of palaeoartworks will be missed. Our current lack of artistic diversity may be a real problem for those wanting to make palaeoart a valuable commodity.

Misty the Diplodocus, auctioned last year in the UK for £400,000. Image by Luke MacGregor/Reuters, from here.

3. Palaeoart needs support to develop the culture required for commercialisation

The points made above highlight palaeoart's biggest problem: it basically lacks context and culture outside of a tiny community. There's no way we can take this little industry to auction and expect it to compete with awesome fossils. There may be ways we can alter this, but it might require a significant overhaul of the way palaeoartists work with scientists, educators and the media. To be honest, palaeoartists are presently treated quite awfully with little public promotion, a resulting lack of public identity and an infamously poor and unreliable economy. This condition describes the 'major players' or 'masters' of palaeoart as well as its lesser-known or new, fledgling artists. We need to change this if we want palaeoart to step into the world of high-value auctions.

How might we go about this? Firstly, it is time that artists were obviously and publicly credited for their work. In other industries, artist names are essentially brands. Artwork is frequently valued because of who produced it rather than the art itself. In most off-line activities, palaeoartist accreditations are difficult to spot or, worse, allocated to faceless institutions or companies. This is even so in richly illustrated palaeontology books, where artists are treated as secondary importance to authors. This may be why palaeoart is often only seen as an extension of science: funny as it sounds, we rarely acknowledge palaeoartist roles in producing palaeoart. As long as we largely deny exposure and name-recognition to palaeoartists, no-one will pay top dollar for their work. Perhaps we should start prominently naming artists who make significant contributions to palaeontological projects - galleries, articles and books - to start building their reputations. With time, artist association may pay off commercially, lending 'brand recognition', credence or quality to the projects they work on. People could start to follow palaeoartist careers in the way we can musicians and actors and, when their original work comes up for sale, potential buyers will have some concept of its significance to the artist as well as wider scientific culture.

We also need to stamp out the idea that all palaeoart, and palaeoartists, are interchangeable. Not only is it highly detimental to palaeoartworks, but it cripples the industry as a whole. Book publishers, outreach coordinators and even major museums regularly have in-house artists directly copy palaeoartworks rather than using original work. Sometimes, the shamelessness of these acts is unbelievable. The reasons for this are normally to do with money and desire for 'in house' styling. This is a disaster for multiple reasons. From an outreach perspective, plagiarising artists often misunderstand their subjects and make mistakes: we fail in our goal of conveying palaeontology accurately. More broadly, these acts are questionable ethically and legally, they dilute the importance and impact of original work, are insulting to the original artists, and ultimately reduce the market value of palaeoartworks. I can't think of another artistic medium which allows this. Radio stations didn't play cover versions of Beatles songs because they don't want to pay royalties. Book publishers do not force artists to re-draw the Mona Lisa so it matches their house styles. They herald the art for what it is, its significance, and the hard work of the people behind it. By allowing palaeoart to be copied so liberally, we send the message that the artists are unimportant, which means their work is also worthless and undesirable.

The sort of crap palaeoartists have to put up with all the time. One is an original image considered shocking and thought provoking when first published, the other is a direct knock-off, produced for profit by a renowned palaeoart plagiarist. The institution hiring the latter has since taken the offending image, and others of similar derivation, out of circulation. 
This has to change if palaeoart is to develop any real sense of culture. After all, if the palaeontological community does not respect its artists, how can we expect wider audiences to? We need to stop employing individuals who repeatedly rip off other people's work and, if asked, palaeoartists themselves should refuse outright to rip-off the art of their colleagues. Authors, exhibition developers, publishers, and educators should employ genuine palaeoartists rather than knock-off illustrators, and obtain the education to know when 'historically important' images are more appropriate than new ones. We cannot have culture without a sense of history, after all. Some folks within the palaeontological community already strive to do this, often against the tide of publisher might. Palaeoartists do also sometimes get treated well by publishers, even being featured in well publicised, high quality books celebrating their art (e.g. White 2012). Unfortunately, these are exceptional instances in the palaeontological community, when they should be normal. I don't doubt this proposal will require more money to obtain original artwork for projects rather than second-rate copies, but the investment might pay off: better treatment and more business for palaeoartists; higher quality work for the products concerned; and more marketability for both. This would be a major step towards offering palaeoart as a replacement for fossil specimens.

Longer term, granting palaeoartists more fame, income and success can only have a positive outcome. Financially comfortable artists have more time to make art, which gives us more art to sell instead of fossils. Moreover, it allows time for experimentation. Palaeoart really needs this if we want it to float economically outside of the immediate palaeontological community. We need more stylised and abstract art in addition to more conventional scientific illustrations, or service to dinosaur fanboys. We can look to the popularity of modern animal artwork as a guide here: it's very popular, but also mostly stylised. Palaeoartists have little to offer in this area at the moment, and, if palaeoart is to really help push against over-commercialisation of fossils, we need fossil-based art which is as interesting and striking as the fossils themselves.

But will any of this ever happen?

The palaeoart industry has always been a bit of a slum to work in. Even Charles Knight, arguably the most famous palaeoartist ever, spent much of his career on sporadic contracts which made relatively little money (Milner 2012). There's no obvious sign that this is going to change either, or - from a strictly functional perspective - that it even has to. Palaeoart will probably always be around, its practitioners making the best they can from the opportunities that come their way. But this is not to say that perseverance alone makes it fit for high profile auctions as an antidote to over-commercialisation of fossils. There's very little palaeoart can do to develop itself, let alone take the brunt for another cause, until it is properly supported and respected by scientific and media communities, and we stop treating it as a near-worthless addendum to palaeontological science.


  • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. (2012). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.
  • Milner, R. (2012). Charles R. Knight: The Artist who Saw Through Time. Abrams.
  • Sereno, P. C., Tan, L., Brusatte, S. L., Kriegstein, H. J., Zhao, X., & Cloward, K. (2009). Tyrannosaurid skeletal design first evolved at small body size. Science, 326(5951), 418-422.
  • Shimada, K; Currie, P. J., Scott, E., & Sumida, S. S. (2014). The greatest challenge to 21st century paleontology: When commercialization of fossils threatens the science. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 1; 1E: 4 p;
  • Tischlinger, H. & Frey, E. (2014). A new pterosaur with mosaic characters of basal and pterodactyloid pterosauria from the Upper Kimmeridgian of Painten (Upper Palatinate, Germany). Archaeopteryx, 31: 1-13.
  • White, S. (2012). Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.


  1. Great article, though very sobering for those of us in the business. For what it's worth, the identity of the AMNH's "artist X" has been revealed.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Emily. I deliberately kept details light on the illustrated plagiarism because said institution has been very good in dealing with the fallout. It's a cracking example of the kind of thing we have to put up with though, and the fact it's from just a few months back shows that it's not a problem that's disappearing.

      On being sobered: I try to remain a bit optimistic. It can't, in some respects, get much worse for a lot of artists: we have no real voice, presence or even professional dignity in most circles, so the only way is up. Even just stamping out the perpetual copying of our work would be an improvement on working practises. At least we'd feel a little more respected!

  2. In terms of broad appeal for contemporary paleontological art, I am wondering if James Gurney is about the only living example who has turned his work into a commercially successful enterprise (i.e., serious reach beyond dinosaur fans). His Dinotopia series had some good reach, and how many other artists have had their work turned into a TV series?

    Ray Troll might be another example, on a smaller scale--I was quite surprised to see an original hanging in the home of (non-paleontologist) parents of an acquaintance. They had seen it in a gallery, and loved it enough to buy it (it was one of his fish paintings).

    Completely agreed with your other points...people have an emotional connection to real fossils, and no replica or painting will ever replace that. Education--and it is a long battle--is probably the way forward.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andy. I wonder if James and Ray are the exceptions that prove the rule in this discussion: it's likely the universe James has created through his art that appeals more than the animals themselves, and Ray's work is deeply stylistic. Neither one is reliant on 'standard' palaeoart alone to sell their work. They might give us hope that palaeoart can be commercialised however, so long as we're not afraid to be a little more experimental with it.

  3. If any paleoartist was to actually have some success with the public, who do you think it would be? luis ray seems like he could work at the very least.


    1. I don't know, really. I expect those who lean more towards more stylised, but not outrageous, art might do well. I can't see artists who constantly show animals in slasher poses and combat will do well in wider settings, though. We need to be more sophisticated than that.

    2. Aldo slasher poses and Luis's "over the top" style may not be appealing to us, how much so is it to the public? Particularly when it's dinosaurs we're talking about, its something your average person might associate with them.


    3. I'm assuming that we're talking about financial success here, not just popularity. There's no doubt that OTT poses and dinosaur fight scenes are popular, but would people earning serious money want them on their wall? Most popular art of modern animals that we see being sold for serious money is not of animals in 'extreme' poses: they're a lot more naturalistic. From a business point of view, I wonder if the association of OTT poses with dinosaur art is more harmful than useful. It panders to expectation that palaeoart is - as expected - more for dinosaur fanboys than art or animal lovers, which (according to this post, anyway) is something we need to change.

    4. I hadn't thought of that... thought I certainly that a style of more peaceful, natural images is far more appealing. Of course there s a balance. I'd say museum style environment/panoramas might be popular over much else. Yes, financial success should be most prominently taking into account, aldo popularity shouldn't be ignored.


  4. Great post, Mark. Lots of sad truths here.

  5. I maintain - I do feel that I've been saying the same thing for some years now - that one big problem with the business of palaeoart is the fact that many (THOUGH NOT ALL) of the salaried palaeontologists who advise/comment on/commission/choose depictions of fossil animals do not care about the art, nor the individuals who produce it, nor indeed the entire field and history of palaeoart (famous quote from book-writing palaeontologist: "I don't care about the art, only that the text is accurate"). For as long as this situation persists, things won't change. Optimism, however, comes from the fact that - thanks to the internet giving more of us a voice - more and more people are aware of this situation, are taking it to heart, and are changing their approach and outlook. It's happening slowly, but I think it is happening. In the end though, it seems likely that the production of palaeoart is always going to be too niche to form a reliable income for anyone, sad as that is.

  6. Fantastic article, Mark.
    I think one model about commercialization of the fossils might include 3D printing and casts, which allow visually excellent models to be had in someone's private space, while 'adopting' the same authentic fossils which remain publicly accessible. Technology would allow the status-symbol private collecting to co-exist with the accessibility of public research.

    As to the likelihood for palaeoart to attain collector's status, I won't harbor much hope until Doug Henderson is living the good life with his auctions and self-publishing. Because Doug's an artist.

    1. I also wonder if casts are the way to go, but would people pay the same amount for even one-of-a-kind casts? I like the idea of 'adopting' fossils too, but I wonder how it would work logistically. Wouldn't academic institutions need to won the fossils in the first place to create 'adoption' schemes?

  7. I mostly agree with this, but I am not sure Artist-X is just a random illustrator or rip off artist. His work always looks original to me. He bills himself a paleontological illustrator on his website, and his work looks pretty accurate to me. I remember people tearing Greg Paul a new one when he requested people stop using his art for profit. He established the look of dinosaurs for almost 4 decades and now he gets torn down and ridiculed for "shrink wrapping" and defending his own financial bottom line.
    I understand that some individuals "created" the visual representation of certain extinct animals but that doesn't give them exclusive rights to create content for high profile exhibitions, or media. Having worked as an exhibit designer for many years I know that you stick with the illustrators, graphic designers, exhibit designers, and fabricators that you can count on getting the job done in a fast paced environment. It has nothing to do with ignoring paleo-artists. From what I could glean from 2 New York Times articles is that they used their own internal exhibit department to create their exhibition. I would give almost anything to be on that team. I have been making dinosaur related art for a long time and I never sold a piece or been published. Heck, I even worked in the visitor services department at the AMNH in hopes of getting an "in". That whole Roy Chapman Andrews story inspired me, but things don't work that way anymore. Even as an exhibit designer, I have done nothing related to dinosaurs over the course of my career, which is the reason I got into it in the first place. Do you know how many dinosaur exhibits I have seen and said to myself, "I should have worked on that" and had my heart wilt in my chest because I never got the chance? I'm guessing Illustrator-X feels the same way, and is thrilled to be working with the museum. It isn't a conspiracy to rip off or undercut paleo-artists in general, we are just victims of the bottom line.
    Do you know how much money I made making paleo art this year or any year? $0.00 Now, I have a home and children to support. I can't take the moral high road and not work at all, so I have to slave away as a minion for a design firm watching others get to create world class exhibits while I work a few hours each night in the hopes of creating a piece that I might be able to sell. My heart has been breaking for years, but I keep trudging on anyway...

    1. Hey Nick,

      Thanks for the comment. 'Artist X' can produce, and does, some fantastic original work. Alas, he's also a renowned plagiarist and, in this instance, was caught red handed. The institution employing him withdrew this and other images on grounds of copyright infringement, and the artist has (apparently) been given a stern speaking to. And yes, while I'm sure the artist in question is thrilled to be working with such an important institution, he'll need to work a lot more professionally in the future if he wants to keep his affiliation. I've said elsewhere and will reiterate it here: none of us own the appearance of extinct animals, their poses or the basic compositions we put them in, but artists do own their work. When that gets blatantly ripped off, any artist has the right to be angry. This is not a claim of conspiracy: it's simple stealing of intellectual property.

      On Greg Paul's DML palaeoart tirade: No-one really thought Paul was wrong on his basic point. Palaeoartists are treated unfairly all the time, and influential artists like Paul have particular right to feel hard done by. It was his outrageous rudeness to others and self-serving protocols (excluding new artists from palaeoart, dictating what prices artists can charge, attempting to ring-fence his body of work as 'off limits' as reference material, suggestions that he had more rights to some poses than others etc.) which we all objected to. It was his attitude, not his idea, which derailed his own crusade and lost respect from many people who once admired him.

  8. Kind of off-topic, but ...

    I don't think Misty the Diplodocus is a Diplodocus. My gut reaction was that the long, horizontal profile of the neural spines in the posterior cervicals (they're really spinopostzygapophyseal laminae) looks a lot like what we see in the Barosaurus holotype YPM 429, as seen in Figure 6 of our recent preprint, illustrating Vertebra Q. Then when I zoomed in and counted the cervicals, I got a total of sixteen, which is more than we expect in Diplodocus.

    Not sure what to make of this. If I'm right (and this is speculation based on a single publicity photo) it suggests a certain slapdash approach on the part of those who prepared the specimen for auction. Good thing it went to a proper museum (and at a not wholly unreasonable price).