The current market value of bones reflects both the history of the industry, and basic market principles. I collect historical documents relating to the medical bone trade. In my documents, I have evidence of the sale of a child skull for 125 dollars in the 1970’s, a half skeleton set for 46 British pounds in 1983, and many more prices, that for the modern collector, bring a longing for times when our passion was more affordable.
What shapes the price of the market now are several factors: the scarcity of bones in today’s market, the rate of inflation in our monetary system, and the will of the consumer.
When India outlawed the export of human osteology in 1985, a seemingly limitless market suddenly became limited. When a country exports 60,000 human osteological samples one year, and zero the next, this will radically shift the pricing of the remaining supply. For any collector that began before the ban, the effect of this legislation would have been deeply felt. After China banned the sale of skeletons in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, the slow trickle of new pieces finally dried up. While this had a definite impact, it was the 1985 ban that truly was the death knell of that phase of the industry.
In the following years, those of us in the industry have noticed that the prices have been steadily rising. Some choose to blame this on large scale collectors hoarding resources after the end of new items being introduced to the market. Some prices can be explained by inflation. An item that cost 170 American dollars in 1975 would cost over 830 dollars in 2021 money. Because the rate of inflation has gone up over 350% percent since then, it is logical to assume that prices would increase, even without any other factors being considered.
But we are not just dealing with inflation. Much like gold, bones are a limited resource. With the invention of the internet, the hunt for bones perhaps can make this feel untrue. We can connect with others and share our collections like never before, and interest in the industry is growing. But that does not change the fact that supply is limited. Every major collector understands that the places they used to frequent have a dwindling supply. The biggest collections diminish in size as they sell away their stock. As the market constricts, prices rise.
But ultimately, the price of items is determined by what people are willing to pay. I am constantly analyzing the market to determine if my prices make sense. If no one is willing to buy the item at what I have priced it, then it is too expensive. If people are willing to buy it, priced as it is, then it is at an appropriate price. My prices account for the original cost of the item, the cost of properly photographing it, researching it, and storing it. Because I wish for my pieces to find their permanent homes, I do not treat them as flippable items. These pieces deserve to be treated with respect and selling them for the prices I do ensure that they will be cared for as the valuable and scarce teaching instrument that they are.
While it is easy to grumble about what seems like unreasonable price gouging, it is important to remember that many factors go into the prices as they change and rise. A lot of these factors are out of the control of any one individual.