1.9 Failure to return the stolen fossils

As managers and protectors of the fossil site Birk Knowes SSSI, Scottish Natural Heritage had the task of returning the fossils that had been stolen on their watch.

However, as Edinger could not be prosecuted, he could do with the fossils as he pleased. In the years after the plunder, Edinger had offered the fossils to the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) and asked for a sum that ostensibly covered his expenses to remove the fossils over the years. The NMS did not go accord with this on the grounds that the fossils were removed without a permit.

In early 1999 we learned, through a fossil dealer from the south of England, that the Humboldt Museum in Berlin had recently purchased a large collection of fossils from the south of Scotland. When we approached H. -P. Schultze, Director of the Humboldt Museum, about the recently-acquired Scottish fossils, he mentioned the Edinger collection and told us the locality data given by Edinger:

Letter from the Director of the Humboldt Museum in Berlin mentioning the Edinger fossils from Scotland.

While H. –P. Schultze may not have known it, but Logan Water and Logan Farm are other locality names for Birk Knowes. Edinger had therefore sold the “stolen” fossils to the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.

With this information we informed SNH where the Edinger fossils went and recieved this response:

Following this, SNH started a process to attempt to return the fossils.

What happened next were negotiations between SNH and the Humboldt Museum. SNH went public for the first time about the theft. This happened in 1999; 4 years after they encountered Edinger and closed the site. It is likely that they went public because it involved stolen Scottish fossils sold to a national museum from another country, which makes for nice headlines.

Newspaper articles would provide updates about the progress of negotiations:

The Herald, Friday, April 16, 1999
Scotland on Sunday, 19 November, 2000

The Humboldt Museum pretended to be the innocent party during this by claiming that the fossils were bought in good faith, and even disputing that they were illegally collected.

By the year 2000, SNH triumphantly declared that the Humboldt Museum was going to return some of the stolen fossils. (see right).

However, the euphoria was short-lived as by 2001 the Humboldt Museum changed its stance and refused to return a single fossil. This was explained in a newspaper article from May 2001 in the Sunday Herald (see below)





Sunday Herald, May, 2001


Based on the note below written in 2002 in Earth Heritage it looks like the Humboldt Museum was not taking SNH serious:

Earth Heritage, Issue 19, Winter 2002/2003

In the above article it is mentioned that the Humboldt Museum claimed that they could not identify precisely where most of the fossils came from. If true, this would be highly favourable for the Humboldt as it would mean that the ‘stolen’ status of these fossils cannot be ascertained, which means that they don’t need to be returned.

However, there are two problems with what the Humboldt says:

1) It is unlikely to the extreme that the Humboldt bought these fossils without locality data. One does not simply spend around £200,000 on a collection of fossils with missing locality data. The locality data is critically important for a fossil as it is used to determine the age. Not having this is the equivalent of possessing a painting without knowing who the artist is. Locality data is in fact so important for fossils that museums have been known to throw away fossils which don’t have this.

2) The Birk Knowes fossils can be readily identified as coming from that particular locality. Certain species, and especially the more spectacular ones like Ainiktozoon and Jamoytius, are unique to this locality. The degree of preservation of the fossils and the type of rock also makes them uniquely identifiable as having originated from Birk Knowes. Someone with experience at the site can distinguish these fossils from those of other localities.

Despite these two points, SNH appears to have bought what the Humboldt told them. This was a missed opportunity of epic proportions. What SNH should have done is asked a person knowledgable on Birk Knowes (like one of us) to come with them to the Humboldt Museum to help identify the stolen fossils. This way there would have been a chance that at least some of the stolen fossils could be returned to Scotland.

Beyond 2002 it looks like there was little progress with negotiations. By 2006 SNH was still left empty-handed and finally gave up on attempting to return the stolen fossils. As written in Earth Heritage in 2006: “SNH calls it a day”:

Earth Heritage, Issue 27, Winter 2006-2007

Other than what was written in the media, we do not have details of why exactly SNH failed to return any fossils from Berlin. It seems that legal action against the Humboldt Museum was not an option for SNH, as this excerpt from an article from the BBC explains (see here for full article):

Source: BBC, 5th of March 2002

According to this story, SNH did not pursue a legal case against the Humboldt Museum because European legislation was untested and it would have been too expensive. However, this is obviously not the whole story as important details have been omitted. Not a word was said about SNH’s failure to protect the site or the existence of the oral permit which laundered the stolen fossils.

So, what really happened between SNH and the Humboldt Museum? We can surmise that the Humboldt Museum would have questioned Edinger about the legality of the collected fossils, especially once SNH asked for the return of the fossils. Edinger would have mentioned the site warden and the oral permit. The Humboldt Museum would know that this would have severely weakened SNH’s bargaining position and chances of successful legal action. This is most likely why the Humboldt knew that SNH could not credibly threaten them.

It is one thing for SNH to have untried legislation and an expensive court battle, but it is something entirely different when you have this as well as negligence and the oral permit looming over the case.

In effect, it is most probable that the fossils could not be returned for many of the same reasons Edinger could not be prosecuted four years earlier. Alan McKirdy’s oral permit squandered what little opportunity there was for legal action. On top of this, the magnitude of Edinger’s collection indicated that he had been collecting from the site for many years. It was not some weekend raid. This shows that it had happened under the noses of SNH, which meant that the organisation had been negligent. These factors could explain why SNH found that it was not worth the financial risk. Furthermore, as explained earlier, not pursuing legal action also saved SNH from further embarrassment, as it prevented the real story from being made public through a court case.

It is also worth noting that the Humboldt Museum could have reversed the transaction with Edinger on the grounds that the fossils were not legitimately collected. They could have mounted legal action against Edinger for selling stolen fossils to them. However, the fact that they did not do this shows that they felt unthreatened by Scottish Natural Heritage.

On a side note; the only stolen Edinger fossils ever returned to Scotland were brought in by us and are housed in the National Museums of Scotland at the request of Edinger because he thought that he could make a deal with that museum.

In the newspaper articles above SNH never owned up to its negligence of Birk Knowes or the existence of the oral permit. Instead, SNH created a narrative that the site could not be protected due to its remoteness. Next a closer look is afforded to these as well as other news items to show how SNH abused its position as a government agency to hide the truth and spread fake news about this affair.

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