Specimens gone forever

Following on the heels of Paolo’s post last week on Collections at Risk, the International Business Times reports on a collection in Iraq that is actively being destroyed. Among the irreplaceable artefacts lost was the 7th Century Assyrian winged bull – whose twin and now only survivor resides at the British Museum, London. I don’t think we can take any comfort from the fact that it’s not a Natural History collection, or assume that Natural History collections are necessarily safe from these people: they have already condemned and murdered pigeon fanciers and banned the teaching of evolution (no surprises there). For the time being we must conclude that no collection, or indeed curator, is safe – but that has probably been true for other reasons for time immemorial.

The financial value of museum objects

In the museum sector there’s a bit of unwillingness to discuss the financial value of objects. After all, museums are not run as salerooms and their focus is on the other sorts of value that collections hold.

Of course, for some artworks it can be hard to ignore the massive price tags that they sometimes carry and there are some good arguments that in our materialistic society, which has become increasingly focussed on economics, there are sound reasons for including financial value in considerations about collections. An interesting discussion about this between two NatSCA stalwarts, Jan Freedman and Mark Carnall, was recently published by the Museums Association.

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now... (image from Musée d'Orsay)

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now… (image from Musée d’Orsay)

For those of us who work in museums, we normally only consider a specimen’s price-tag when acquiring new material, deaccessioning material or dealing with insurance valuations for exhibitions and loans.

When acquiring specimens, the consideration is about whether an asking price is fair and an appropriate amount to spend in the context of institutional priorities and budget. When deaccessioning, the consideration is rather more complex and is linked to appropriate methods of disposal and the motivations for disposal. Deaccessioning shouldn’t be done in order to make money, but disposal by sale may be an option as long as the processes involved in the decision meet professional standards.

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s - uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s – uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

When assessing these sorts of values it can be very useful to look to private auctions for a guide, which take place every so often at a variety of auction houses. For natural history it can be worth checking Sotheby’sBonhams and Summers Place. However, auctions tend to deal with the more showy objects, rather than the scientific specimens that museum staff often have to deal with, especially for research loans.

Insurance valuations are slightly different, since these may not simply relate to the market value of an object, but could take into consideration the cost of conservation if the object is damaged, or the cost of going into the field to collect a similar specimen to replace it if it’s the sort of specimen that doesn’t come up for sale. Either of these possibilities may be far more expensive than a likely sale value.

One of the issues with putting a price on objects is that it may make them more obviously attractive to criminals. For instance, a sudden spike in the street value of illegal rhino horn in parts of Asia around 2009 led to a massive increase in the prices of antique rhino trophies at auction, until special measures were introduced to stop this loophole in trade. In addition it has led to the targeted thefts of hundreds of specimens from collections around the world.

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Of course, by being aware of the changing value of specimens and therefore the changing risk of theft, museums are able to take steps to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place to properly care for their objects. So although the financial value of objects can be complex to address, it is clear that there is a need for museums to know how much their collections are worth, since other people may be only too aware.

Rhino DNA database

Rhinoceros horn thefts have been a problem for a while, with several UK museums being amongst those targeted by thieves. If you haven’t hidden away your rhino horn yet you should do it now!

Despite the rather dire situation, it is heartening that in several cases the people responsible for thefts have later been arrested and convicted. It is also interesting to note that rhino horn is being intercepted and seized at airports and in Police raids.

Of course, a seized horn isn’t easy to return to its owner unless it has a unique identification – after all, rhino horns can look rather similar to each other. This is especially problematic when the material is seized in the destination country rather than the country from which it was taken.

To tackle this problem, the Wildlife DNA Forensics – Diagnostics & Molecular Biology Section of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) have just started on a project to establish a DNA database for rhino horn in museums and zoos in Europe. This service is currently being offered for free to museums in the UK.

Rhino

The database will provide a mechanism for the identification of stolen rhino horn, which will make return of specimens possible and (perhaps more importantly) make it far easier to demonstrate whether seized material has been stolen as well as illegally traded/imported/exported. This would mean longer prison sentences for guilty parties – which may be a better deterrent than the paltry sentences sometimes handed out – and it would also help identify the chain of supply for rhino horn, which could play an important role in restricting the trade.

The database could also potentially contribute to other research on rhinos – perhaps about their past genetic diversity, which may contribute to a better understanding of their conservation requirements in the future.

In light of the obvious security concerns associated with rhino horn, NatSCA have been in touch with the representative for SASA who is heading up the project, Dr Lucy Webster.

Lucy has been very helpful in providing information about the project and addressing security concerns about the database. In her own words:

“We realise the sensitivity of the information you are providing. The information you submit with your samples will be held securely and transcribed into electronic format as part of the database. The database will be hosted on a government secure network, with access restricted to those directly involved in this project.

Some concerns have been raised regarding the security of this information in relation to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We have consulted with Scottish Government FOI unit and while we are obliged to consider all requests, the sensitive nature of the information means that we have good grounds for withholding detailed information (e.g. addresses of submitters).

Summary information, such as the total number of samples on the database or the total number of submitters, may have to be disclosed. We are very grateful for your involvement in this project. If you are interested in specific details about your samples (e.g. the species, or the sex of the animals) we will be able to provide these details once the DNA profiles are on the database.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that the project does not ask for the specific storage location of any rhino material and there are no visits to museum sites by external parties involved in the data collection – the specimens are sampled by staff at the museum using the guidance provided below.

Obviously there are still considerations about getting involved in the project, since sampling involves drilling a 5mm hole in specimens (alas the surface sampling technique using a rubber that we saw at this year’s conference only provides enough data for species level analysis, not individual identification), but that has to be balanced against the potential benefits offered by the database.

Whether you send in your samples is a decision for you and your organisation, but if you would like more information you can contact a NatSCA committee member or get in touch with Lucy.

Sampling method guidance

Submitting samples for Rhino DNA database