The Tianyu Natural History Museum doesn't look like the repository of a scientific treasure trove. A nondescript brick building in Pingyi, a secluded town 430 miles (692 km) southwest of Beijing, its doors are guarded by two groggy security guards who spend their day flipping through newspapers and sipping tea. There are no curators or guides giving tours of the museum's 28 exhibit halls, and only a handful of visitors on a Sunday afternoon.
But Tianyu is not short on natural history. In one hall alone, 480 dinosaur fossils are randomly placed in glass cases or left in the open air around a room the size of a basketball court, along with Triassic fish and other more recent fossils, primarily from different parts of China. "We are the world's number one," says Zheng Xiaoting, director and keeper of the Tianyu (which means "universe" in Chinese) Natural History Museum's collection of thousands of dinosaur fossils. Though no official records of the collection's number exist, several Chinese paleontologists echo Zheng's claim that Tianyu houses the world's largest collection of dinosaur fossils. "In 10 years' time," says Zheng, who runs the largest business in town, a lucrative state-owned gold mine, which owns the museum, "Tianyu will really put our small town on the world map."
If the world will have them. Tianyu has purchased most of its fossil collection from individuals an illegal practice permitted by authorities only because it is technically a state-owned institution. More problematic, however, is that there is no way of knowing how many of those fossils are real. Chinese scientists say fake fossils are so pervasive in Chinese museums that using authenticity as the basis for judging a collection's worth is unrealistic. "Granted, there are many fakes and processed [fossils] in Tianyu, like everywhere else in China," says Xu Xing, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is part of a team that discovered primitive dinosaur feathers in fossils that are now housed at Tianyu. "But I was truly astonished by the caliber of its real and valuable collections...It probably has a larger collection of complete fossil skeletons than any other museum in the world."
In the late 1970s, China's economic reform and opening up spurred a fervor of fossil-hunting among impoverished peasants, who began selling their finds to the highest bidders state institutions, private individuals and foreigners alike. Since then, numerous dinosaur and bird fossils have been identified in the northeast province of Liaoning, and the southwest regions of Guizhou and Yunnan have become well known for their massive output of Triassic marine-life fossils. Fakery became a natural part of this lucrative business, and several Chinese paleontologists say fakes, typically made into the shape of bones using plastic, charcoal and construction materials, now make up the majority of institutional fossil collections China. And though China's vast land mass means there are probably still plenty of valuable and legitimate fossils out there, China's fossil rush might already be a thing of the past. In 2002, the government tightened its cultural-relics law to ban private fossil-trading, drying up both legal and black-market trade.
Zheng declines to give an estimate for what percentage of Tianyu's collection could be fakes, but says he and his staff have started to label but not remove those that have proven not to be the real deal. To cope with the drastically shrinking market, Zheng says the museum will gradually shift its focus to scientific research, cooperating with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to study dinosaurs and early birds. After all, Zheng says, it was never about the money. "I don't care for Mercedes," he says when asked why he drives a battered VW Santana 2000. "If I ever have an extra dime, I will use it on fossils."