Vol. 1, Issue 12, August 5, 2003
Get Away From It All
The Sleaze

New York, London Battle Over Sussex Fossils

The Natural History Museum of London is suing the City of New York for the return of a rare collection of fossils allegedly smuggled from Great Britain illegally.

"It is time for us to reclaim our paleontological heritage, and restore these fossils to their rightful place of origin," said Museum director Sir Neil Chalmers. "They are not being made accessible to scientists in their current setting, which is deplorable."

The fossils include a rare complete skeleton of the Uinedapu, a diminutive ursine creature which flourished approximately 22 million years ago in what is now Sussex, England. The Uinedapu fossil was unearthed in Ashdown Forest early in the 20th century by the amateur paleontologist Alan Milne. During a series of unauthorized digs between 1924 and 1928, Milne uncovered a variety of rare species, including a dwarf equus asinus, part of a skeleton that could be a tigris minoris, an unnamed small porcine animal, and - most strikingly - a pair of fossils which appear to be marsupials, despite the fact that marsupials are not and never have been indigenous to Great Britain.

The fossils made Milne a minor celebrity in the late 1920s. However, Milne fled the country in 1947 with an accomplice, Ernest Shepard, in an effort to escape dismal postwar economic conditions (and taxation of his fossil-related earnings) in England and toured the United States for several years. Although the circumstances of their acquisition is not clear, the New York Public Library now has the fossils.

"When we were very young," said New York Library Council President Roger Balstrud, "we, like many other public institutions, made some acquisitions which would perhaps not be considered entirely above-board by today's standards. However, as the fossils have been in New York now longer than they were in Britain, we feel confident that our rights to the items are secure."

Chalmers pooh-poohed this argument.

"Longer than they were in Britain? They've been in Sussex for twenty two million years!" he replied forcefully. "Make no mistake: We are not alone in this effort. Now we are six," Chalmers added, alluding to the consortium of British museums which have joined in the lawsuit, "and we shall not rest until justice is served."


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