The case of the giant elephant bird egg

In January 1993, nine-year-old Jamie Andrich was playing in the high sand dunes around the beach just north of Cervantes, Western Australia, when he made a remarkable find. Poking out of the sand was a giant white egg. A few weeks later, he and his parents brought the egg in to the Western Australian Museum and I found it sitting in a cardboard box on my desk when I came back from lunch. I immediately recognised it as an egg of the Madagascan elephant bird, Aepyornis maximus, not just by virtue of its huge size (31.7 cm long) but because it wasn't the first time a giant elephant bird's egg had been found in a Western Australian sand dune. A similar egg was found in 1930 near the mouth of the Scott River, Augusta, by a Vic Roberts. This egg was already in the Museum's vaults. The next day, after I had identified the egg and guessed it to be around 2000 years old, the Andrichs came in to the Museum and claimed it back.

At the time of the discovery, Jamie's family immediately assumed that it was a simple case of 'finders keepers'. They were told the egg could be worth a lot of money and were prepared to sell it to the highest bidder. They employed a professional auctioneer to handle the sale of the egg and to generate publicity about it. They invited me to see the site it came from, so I visited the dunes, took some photos and did some measurements on its stratigraphic position within the dune system. It was found about 300 metres inland, only about two metres or so above current sea levels. The egg's auction generated an enormous amount of media interest. Claims from the auctioneer that it was worth AU$150 000 came in, as well as anonymous bids from a Japanese company. While this was going on, I was researching the egg and its value, based on similar finds and market value at recent auctions. My estimate was that the egg was worth about AU$5000-$10 000, because that was the going price for an Aepyornis egg at auctions in England. It was at this point that the vendors took the egg to be examined by experts in Melbourne and Sydney and get a small part of it radiocarbon-dated. It was soon confirmed that my identification of Aepyornis maximus was correct, and that my age estimate of 2000 years (a lucky guess on my part) was close to the carbon age of 2000 +/- 75 years.

The ownership of the egg, however, still had not been adequately resolved. The egg had been found on Crown Reserve Land, not private land, so we argued that by all rights it should belong to the Crown (namely the State of Western Australia). Crown lawyers began to consider the case in detail. About six months later, after much more media publicity, and numerous attempts to sell it overseas being thwarted, we were able to ensure that the specimen would never be exported (by export permits being refused), after the Crown legal department handed down its findings that the egg was indeed Crown property under the Crown Lands Act.

The Andrich family was infuriated by this and promptly went back to Cervantes and re-buried the egg in the sand dunes. On advice from their lawyers, however, they soon retrieved the egg and struck a deal with the government of Western Australia: the egg would be publicly displayed at a prominent city bank, and an appeal launched to raise money for the family. The government gave them an exgratia payment of AU$25 000, a similar amount to that given in the past to finders of shipwrecks or other archaeological treasures. The unsuccessful public appeal raised only $500 in extra funds.

Today the egg sits in the Western Australian Museum's 'Diamonds to Dinosaurs' display. A scientific paper (Long et al. 1998) argues that both it and the Scott River egg could have floated as addled eggs across the Indian Ocean from Madagascar before being buried in the dunes. The case also resulted in a legal paper, published in the Australian Property Law Journal, which reviewed ownership of title by finding (Tooher 1998). An interesting aspect of the case was that it made the government of Western Australia aware of the lack of suitable fossil legislation in the State, and the need to protect sites and to clarify the position of ownership of any future finds—not just those found on Crown land. In this case it was pure luck that the specimen was found on Crown land. Had it been found on private property the State would have had no legitimate claim to it. The case of the giant elephant bird egg established a useful precedent about ownership of fossils under the Crown Lands Act.

I must admit that I felt very uneasy about such a rare and delicate specimen being in private hands. It could easily have been accidentally dropped or, had ownership reverted to the family, smuggled overseas and sold to a private dealer. Even more worrying was the possibility that someone might have come up with the idea that it would be worth more money if sold piecemeal, as 1 cm-long pieces in a necklace (for example), then the egg could have been smashed into a thousand pieces and sold in that fashion.

It is a scandal that, at present, we have no laws in Australia to protect or conserve adequately scientific heritage items which are held in private collections. The case of the giant elephant bird egg was the bane of my life at the museum for more than three years. The ensuing media and public enquiries, from all around the world, were numerous and time-consuming. In the end I wrote a formal publication on the egg in order to make the information on the case available to the public. I still squirm when I think of some of the headlines at the time, when the Minister of Arts' decisions were being openly criticised by the media, who tended to side with the Andrich family. 'Minister with poached egg on face' was just one of them. To my mind, however, the best line belongs to my colleague Dr Alex Bevan, who had to deal with the handover of the egg to the museum while I was away overseas. He sent a fax about the Cervantes egg business to a colleague in France saying 'Un oeuff is un oeuff [sic]!'.

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  • sarama
    Where did they find fossils for the elephant bird?
    8 years ago

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