Don't buy stolen artifacts—here's how to ethically collect science memorabilia

Don’t destroy what you love.

trilobite fossil

Trilobite

Science memorabilia can range from scientists' autographs to fossils.Depositphotos

You don’t have to be a scientist to experience humanity’s tremendous achievements. Collecting scientific memorabilia—pieces of old spacecraft, fossils from long-extinct creatures, or autographed photos of history’s greatest inventors—lets you literally touch great moments from our past. But you have to do it the right way.

Buying these relics can be tricky. The internet is full of fake, stolen, or misrepresented items, and some of them may be flat-out illegal to own. Even if you find a legitimate seller, you have a responsibility to keep your purchases intact for future generations. We talked to a few experts about how to start your collection of scientific keepsakes—and do so ethically.

Get to know the dedicated communities and dealers

Finding cool keepsakes is easier than ever, thanks to the internet—especially sites like eBay. But you can't always trust that the wares you're bidding on are the real deal. Seth Sorensen, quarry developer and owner of popular online store Fossil Shack, recommends that beginners work with reputable dealers.

“Look at their credentials, and if they work with the scientific community or museums,” he says. “It’s important they have those kinds of connections in the field.”

Buying from lesser-known sellers is riskier, Sorensen says. “It's interesting how often fossils from eBay are just such horrendous fakes. Not only are there fake, but people often have misidentified things.” Of course, not everything online is fraudulent. “That's not to say there aren't legitimate fossils on eBay—there are,” Sorensen says. “But I would encourage people who are going to purchase material from a site like that to make sure that they get someone to help authenticate it first.”

Robert Pearlman, editor and founder of collectSPACE, a news and community site dedicated to space exploration and memorabilia, agrees. You never know what's been sitting in someone's attic, so eBay can be a great place to find new material entering the market. But you have to be careful.

“In an ideal world, I would say you shouldn't buy anything off eBay that you're not already a semi-expert on,” says Pearlman. “Read everything you can get your hands on about the subject. Ask questions in communities to those who have been collecting longer.”

The internet abounds with forums—like collectSPACE for astronomy-related items and Fossil Forum for paleontology ones—full of experts. Consult them if you need help analyzing memorabilia for authenticity.

You can also avoid eBay entirely and shop only on reputable sites dedicated to science memorabilia. In addition to Fossil Shack and collectSPACE, check out Fossil Era, Jeremy Norman's HistoryofScience.com, and Kuenzig Books, as well as any annual events or trade shows in your area of interest. Depending on what you're collecting, you may also find small keepsakes at official sources like NASA's online store or museum gift shops.

“Be patient,” Pearlman says. “It’s very tempting to rush and buy your first piece or first 20 pieces. It’s much more rewarding to take it step by step and learn the history of the item before you collect it. Then, once you receive it, it will mean that much more.”

Learn the legal hurdles for your hobby

Just because an item is legitimate doesn’t mean it’s legal to own. Every category of collecting is subject to its own laws, and they can differ depending on where you live.

For example, Sorensen says, "On federal land, it's illegal to collect vertebrate fossils, meaning anything that had a backbone. However, on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands, you can collect invertebrates as long as they're not scientifically important." In other words, when you're hiking on public BLM lands, you need to leave those dinosaur bones alone, but if you find a clam shell, you can carry that home...as long as it isn't in a national park or national monument, where it's illegal to take anything.

Confused yet? Just wait until you set foot on territory owned by the state—the laws about collecting there will differ depending on which state you’re in.

These complexities mean that, whether or not you're a fossil hunter, you need to become familiar with the rules that apply to your type of collecting. Veterans in the aforementioned forums can point you in the right direction, but check with official sources just to be safe. For example, the Bureau of Land Management has a few web pages explaining the laws that regulate what you can and cannot collect from federal land.

Things can get especially murky when you’re dealing with items once owned by the government. “Government property is government property until they say it's not, and there's no statute of limitations on the theft of government property,” says Pearlman. “Some types of items are never legal to be owned. That includes moon rocks brought back to earth by the Apollo astronauts, and the wreckage of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.” Owning a piece of government property—any government’s property—that hasn’t been relinquished to the public can land you in jail. Yes, even if you found it on your own: You can’t defend yourself in court with “finders keepers.”

You also don't want to find yourself in possession of a stolen souvenir. To sidestep that situation, follow the same precautions you would to avoid buying fake items: Stick to reputable sellers and sites, don't go shopping on the black market, and verify eBay offerings for authenticity and legality. Much like buying a TV on Craigslist, you're always taking a small risk that the item has unsavory origins—but as long as you're buying something legal (remember, no moon rocks) and authentic, you should be in good shape.

And again, if you ever feel unsure about an item you’ve found for sale, make use of those online communities and reputable dealers. There are a lot of experts that can help you figure out what the laws are surrounding your particular interests.

Preserve and display your collection carefully

Part of the joy of collecting is sharing your finds with others. But if you’re going to display fragile artifacts—fossils, clothing, autographs, or anything else—you need to take care of it.

“There are some items so numerous in number that I'd have no problem telling your kid to take it to show and tell,” Pearlman says. “It's more important that people get to see these items and enjoy them. But as you get deeper into the hobby and you start collecting one-of-a-kind pieces, that's when you need to act more like a museum curator than a private collector.” As Pearlman points out, a good owner will make sure that a physical piece of history outlives its caretaker. “You can’t take it with you when you die,” he says, “so your job is to make sure that it survives in its present condition or better until the next owner.”

To take care of autographs and other documents, Pearlman recommends framing them with archival-safe matting materials under ultraviolet protective glass (also known as “museum-quality glass”). You might even create a high-quality color reproduction of the document and display that, while keeping the original in a safe. That way, you can still enjoy looking at your prize, and no one will know the difference—but the original will be preserved far from potentially-damaging sunlight.

“While there is some desire to preserve autographs and other collectibles, the real responsibility comes when you're dealing with artifacts that were not created to be collected,” Perlman says. “In those cases, the best advice is to follow what museums do: If it needs some type of restoration, seek expert help.”

Even within a given category, every item is different. For example, one type of fossil may require different types of preservative chemicals than another. This means the education doesn’t stop once you’ve collected your prize. Luckily, museums are often happy to share advice on preserving memorabilia, so call one up and ask a curator how they would handle it.

As a hobby, collecting requires patience and a willingness to learn from the experts. But if you stick with it, the memorabilia will reward your interest.

“Collecting can be a real way to live vicariously through the objects,” says Pearlman. “I was born in 1976, four years after the last Apollo moon landing, so I didn’t see those missions firsthand. But I have had the opportunity to hold items that flew on those missions. Through that, I was able to experience, in part, the excitement of that achievement.”

Just remember to collect what you like—and not just what other people finds valuable. In the end, you’ll have a piece of science history.