By Russ Morgan (Contact)
Security will be tightened at an Emporia State University museum after the theft of several valuable fossils from the school’s collection.
The thefts were reported early last week, but the fossil specimens from the Johnston Geology Museum are believed to have been removed sometime the week before, according to professor and museum director Michael Morales.
Three fossil specimens — two acanthodian fish and a xenocanthus — were taken from the museum, and now staffers are looking at ways to prevent such thefts in the future. Measures might limit students’ access to the museum.
“We’re going to reduce the number of hours it’s open when it’s unattended, so it won’t be open so much anymore on nights and weekends,” Morales said.
Security cameras are a possibility as well, an expense that physical science chair DeWayne Backhus said he would like to avoid if possible.
“We’ve discussed the prospect of security cameras, and that’s an expense I would like to forgo because I try to put the available dollars into instruction,” Backhus said.
The theft was well-orchestrated, leading officials to believe it wasn’t just a college prank. The thief or thieves went into the museum with tools and dismantled the frame that holds a Plexiglass sheet, Morales said. Whoever took the fossils was wearing gloves. Finger marks were made on the Plexiglass, but no fingerprints could be recovered.
“It’s a big Plexiglass, probably four by four or something like that,” Morales said. “They just took it off. They had to break into the case. If it was a prank they would have given it back by now, I suspect.”
One of the specimens in particular was valuable to the school. The xenocanthus, representing a kinship with a freshwater shark, was a specimen of exceptional quality whose value is hard to estimate, Backhus said. The fossil was recovered from a quarry near Hamilton that has provided specimens for several natural history museums in the midwest.
“This was such an incredibly, extraordinarily good specimen,” Backhus said, one that required years of labor and luck to recover and give to the school. “The specimen that was brought in to us was so exceptional it may be the only one of those specimens that would ever be found in that quarry, particularly of the quality of that particular specimen.”
The fossils also are hard to put a dollar value on because of the unique qualities of each specimen, Morales said.
“There are no two specimens alike,” he said. “You can’t buy another specimen that’s the exact same as this one because there’s only one of a kind.”
The value of the specimen is such that it will be impossible to replace in the school’s collection.
“For several hundred dollars, there can be casts purchased of some of these types of fish,” Backhus said. “For a real specimen you might be talking about a few thousand. For the only one of that quality perhaps coming from the Hamilton quarry, you might have to put tens of thousands on it, or just call it priceless.”
Money is one possible motive, but to profit from the theft one would have to turn to the black market.
“A museum or a legitimate educational entity would be typically suspicious of a specimen such as that popping through the door,” Backhus said. “A good museum, a credible museum would want background on the specimen.”
It might be possible for one to turn to the Internet to find underground interest in specimens such as the ones that were stolen.
“I have heard reports that there is private backroom trading that goes on in the collecting world,” Backhus said. “Maybe someone isn’t in it for the scientific interest, but rather for the financial gain that might be made, and I suppose it’s possible, with the Internet being so pervasive in terms of contacting a huge population out there.”
There have been thefts from the science department before, Backhus said, but nothing on the scale of the fossil thefts.
“There was some mischief at one time in the past where a few Indian artifacts were taken, but it would not represent something of the nature of this particular theft,” Backhus said.
Regardless, Backhus and Morales are troubled by the thefts, and by the changes that will take place because of them.
“I think most people are fundamentally honest,” Backhus said. “We want to be open access and we exercise trust, but now that’s been violated.”
“Why do people do bad things?” Morales said. “I don’t know. It certainly might be that they just coveted the specimens. They might be fossil collectors themselves and just wanted them. Or they wanted to sell them.”