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The quick answer is anything from less than one pence to several thousands of pounds. The value of a specimen depends on a number of factors; market value, recollection value, as well as its historical and scientifical significance. Valuations are needed for insurance purposes before we loan specimens for exhibitions or to scientists. Here are some thoughts on how to put a monetary value on microfossils.

 

 

  • Why value?

 

When I first came to the Museum I was told that we don’t do valuations. I sometimes had to stand in for the enquiries officer and usually someone would phone up or come in with a specimen and ask us 'how much is it worth?' or 'would we like to buy it'? Saying that we didn't do valuations was a convenient policy to maintain a consistent approach.

 

Things have changed and now, before we loan for exhibitions or for any other reason, we do a valuation because the loanee is required to provide insurance during the loan period.

 

Occasionally colleagues visit professional dealer fairs where specimens are for sale and need to know what is a good price before buying new specimens.

 

Sometimes it is important to remind funding bodies about the value of the collections in our care. If you place a completely arbitrary figure of £20 on each specimen in our department, the contents of our building is worth an estimated £180 million!

 

 

  • Is there a market value?

 

I didn’t think there was a market for microfossils. However, a recent Google search threw up a banner on the right hand side saying ‘Buy Microfossils’. Of course I couldn’t resist following the link and found that you can buy a whole jar of sand including literally thousands of microfossils for £1.49 – significantly less than one pence per individual specimen.

 

A recent search on eBay found that you can buy examples of the microfossil Nummulites for 99p.The two examples I have given are for items that are very common. What if the specimens are less easy to replace?

 

 

  • How easy is it to find another one?

 

One way to put a valuation on a microfossil is to work out how much it would cost to collect another one. If taken literally this could place enormous values on specimens, for example - it would cost millions of pounds to drill another offshore oil well.

 

I recently had to value some slides for an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery that had been collected from the Antarctic Ocean. The temptation was to calculate how much it would cost to mount a new trip there to find more material. However, other trips to the same area have been carried out since then so we should be able to source equivalent material. The valuation therefore took into account obtaining these residues and paying a technician to make up new slides.

 

This makes it important to record details of collecting costs when participating in fieldwork so that valuations can be carried out more easily. This should take into account time spent in the laboratory and cost of consumables like chemicals used. As a result, it would be relatively easy to value of each slide created by Tim Potter from our field trip to the Welsh Borderland.

 

Sometimes collecting sites may no longer exist because they have become overgrown or are inaccessible for other reasons. In these instances, additional value can be assigned to these specimens.

 

Some species in the £1.49 jar of microfossils may be 10 to a penny but for others there may be only one example in the jar. Time taken for an expert to look through the residue under a microscope and provide an identification should also be built into any valuation in this instance. A rare specimen in this jar may well be worth far more than £1.49 as a result.

 

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Some bottles rich in microfossils from the Ocean Bottom Residue Collection. The material cannot be collected again, has historical significance and is certainly worth a great deal more than £1.49. An individual specimen on a slide derived from one of these residues may not be worth as much as we can easily find a replacement from these bottles.

 

 

  • How does the history of a specimen affect its value?

 

Some specimens have considerable historical value as they were collected by famous scientists. As a rule of thumb, valuations are roughly doubled in these instances. Some leeway is needed here. If a 1p microfossil had been collected by Darwin, clearly it would be worth a bit more than 2p!

 

 

  • What is its scientific significance?

 

Type specimens will obviously be worth more than others. Other specimens that may not have been published can also have added value. For example, we have some specimens from boreholes drilled when they were exploring the site of the channel tunnel. These have added scientific and historical value.

 

 

Although it is sad for me to think that some of my specimens are worth less than one pence, there are many in the collection that are worth much more based on replacement value. A fine example is to consider the billions of pounds that BP must have spent acquiring the microfossil collection that we now hold.

 

If you see microfossils or microfossil collections for sale, I'd love to hear from you. This can help me to provide accurate valuations in the future.

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I have just said goodbye to retired curator Richard Hodgkinson who left the Museum 54 years after taking up a junior position here. His knowledge of the microfossil collection is second to none. Another colleague Andy Currant is about to retire after more than 40 years of service. Can we replace this sort of specialist knowledge? As the curator of a collection of over a million objects that is consulted regularly by scientists, I would argue that specialist curators are vital. Here are 10 points illustrating why.

 

First I'll start with my definition of a specialist curator. This is someone who has in depth knowledge about the collections in their care, an appreciation of their significance and a working knowledge of the external community likely to use them. Some curators publish research papers on their own areas of expertise but I'm not including that in my definition. Nobody in the world is an expert on the range of subjects that micropalaeontology covers!

 

  1. Databasing
    The million plus items in my collections are unlikely to be databased individually during my lifetime. Some knowledge of the relative importance of different parts of the collection helps decide on priorities so limited databasing resources are used to their best potential. Updating identifications of our specimens is also important so knowing 'who is publishing what' can pay dividends.
  2. Conservation
    As with databasing, important decisions need to be made on what needs conserving. Conservation is one of the main remits of the museum and is vital to maintaining the heritage locked up in our collections. Having someone to argue scientifically why something needs conserving helps to prioritise conservation projects.
  3. Enquiries
    It's important to provide accurate information to enquirers. While useful information can be gleaned from Museum card indexes and registers, these rarely include historical details. I've been here for 18 years now and have a pretty good feel for the microfossil collections but I still occasionally rely on retired members of staff to point me in the right direction with an interesting anecdote or two.
  4. Media
    Some of my fellow curators are always being called on to make statements about news articles related to their subject. Meteorites, human fossils or dinosaurs are in the news every week. These high profile judgements emphasise why the Museum is important and the public expect such authoritive statements from specialists at the Museum. OK I hear you say - micropalaeontology rarely makes it to the news. That is one of the reasons why I decided to start this blog!
  5. Loans
    Before our collections are sent out on loan we need to make judgements on their travel suitability and value for insurance purposes. Sometimes loanees want to carry out destructive techniques on the specimens so curators have to advise senior managers about whether these should be allowed.
  6. Disaster and risk management
    We know where our most important specimens are so they can be rescued in the event of a disaster (fire, flood, earthquake). You would think a specialist curator is not required if we have lists already. However, I came to work last Monday morning to find my second floor office and part of the collections area outside flooded. This is strange because I am two floors below the roof! Knowledge of the collections present in the affected cabinets was vital to quickly dealing with the issue. Some people think that databasing all our collections is the answer to replacing specialist curators but this would not have helped in this instance.
  7. Acquisitions
    Should we acquire a collection or not? Knowledge of collectors and their history is useful as is knowledge of the site where it was collected. My experience is that having a specialist on the books also encourages donations. Specialists build up relationships with potential donors, enhancing the value of the present collections by encouraging new donations.
  8. Exchanges and disposals
    These follow the same principles as acquisitions but in reverse. I've heard several horror stories over the years where collections or specimen related documentation have ended up on the skip because the people disposing of them had no idea of their value. Many curators can't bear to think that their collections should be disposed of or exchanged. However, these projects are neccessary so some knowledge of value is essential before disposal decisions are made.
  9. Visits
    People come from all over the world to visit our collections sometimes at vast personal expense. Before planning a trip they need to know for certain that we have collections that suit their specialist needs. Sometimes we need to encourage use of our collections from relevant external stakeholders. I am glad that my colleagues Tom and Steve have been brought in specifically to help me with this remit.
  10. Education
    Educational activities include roadshows like the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, public speaking e.g. Nature Live or input to displays in the galleries of the Museum. Without specialist knowledge, specimens can be poorly interpreted or interesting stories not brought to public attention. All of these activities make the specimens more relevant to members of the public.

 

So you can tell that as a specialist curator I'm in favour of them. No surprise there. I'm not criticising non-specialists either. In these days of austerity, curatorial support is becoming stretched increasingly thinly and staff expected to cover wider subject areas. The days of a person like Richard Hodgkinson staying their entire career in one museum job on one subject may be over but it does not pay to overlook the importance of specialist curatorial knowledge.

 

If you are interested to join in the discussion on this subject, my colleague Dr Tim Ewin is taking part in a question and answer session entitled "In defence of the curator" at the Open Culture event on 27th June at the Kia Oval in London.

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Every quarter we are required to provide numbers of visitors, enquiries and loans to show how the collections are being used. These are passed to the Museum Trustees and subsequently the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as a performance indicator to help justify the expense of maintaining such an amazing collection.

 

At the Museum a new loan type - Surrogate Loan - has just appeared on the horizon to record when we send images of our specimens rather than loaning the specimens themselves. Usually I would sigh and say something under my breath about having too much administration. However, as someone who deals with a lot of images of my collection I'm really glad. Recording surrogate loans gives us and the managers who allocate Museum collections management resources a really useful indication of how much the microfossil collection is being used.

 

Below are a few images I have sent out recently as surrogate loans along with a few comments about them and how they are being used.

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This is the ostracod Lophocythere caesa britannica from the Jurassic (about 160 million years ago) of the UK. The scanning electron microscope picture was taken by me for Prof. Robin Whatley, now retired from University College Aberystwyth, University of Wales. Prof. Whatley has donated a large number of specimens to the Museum during his career and is putting together an extensive publication describing some of them. Robin can't travel easily so his wife Caroline Maybury has been amazingly helpful in preparing the material in our collections for imaging and putting the specimens away afterwards. We would certainly not have sent that many specimens out on loan because they are too fragile and important reference specimens.

 

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This is an image of the conodont Distomodus staurognathoides from the Silurian (about 425 million years ago) of Iran. It is part of donation by Dr Vachik Hairapetian who has provided us with some very interesting material in recent years. Some of it has been published or like this specimen, is in the process of being published. Conodonts from this area of the world are largely undescribed so it is important that this material is recorded as their occurrences can help with future geological interpretations of the region.

 

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This an extreme close up of a piece of chalk from the Sevens Sisters in Kent taken by my former colleague Jeremy Young. It shows tiny rings of calcareous nannoplankton called coccoliths and was sent to artists Francisco Queimadela and Mariana Calo who visited in February. This followed an open day of the micropalaeontology collections associated with an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery at the Oval, London. They are also doing an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery.

 

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This is another ostracod, this time from the Coralline Crag of Norfolk donated in 2011 by Dr Adrian Wood of Coventry University. I took scanning electron microscope images of all the specimens in his donation to help with his publications on ostracods from East Anglia. Adrian has been very helpful in preparing the specimens for accession to our collections by labelling slides and providing electronic data that can be easily incorporated into our database.

 

Throughout my career as a curator I have sent a lot of specimen images to enquirers so I'm very glad that this practise in now being recorded as a performance indicator. Hurrah for surrogate loans!

Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

This is Giles Miller's Curator of Micropalaeontology blog. I make the Museum micropalaeontology collections available to visitors from all over the world, publish articles on the collections, give public talks and occasionally make collections myself.

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