More Than 1,000 Fossils, Including Rare Dinosaurs, Gifted to Brazil’s National Museum Following Fire

The massive donation was made by Burkhard Pohl, a Swiss-German collector, as the museum works to replenish its collections after a devastating blaze in September 2018

A fossil of a pterosaur cranium
A pterosaur cranium fossil is among the donated artifacts that will be on display and studied behind the scenes when the museum reopens in 2026. Handerson Oliveira / National Museum of Brazil

On the night of September 2, 2018, a devastating blaze engulfed the National Museum of Brazil, destroying about 85 percent of its 20 million artifacts.

Sparked by an improperly installed air conditioning unit, the fire closed down the Rio de Janeiro institution—the oldest museum in Brazil. It lost precious items of incalculable cultural and historical value, including hundreds of ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman artifacts, a Royal Hawaiian feather cloak, a dinosaur named Dinoprata, its entire entomology and arachnology collections and vast records of the country’s Indigenous and pre-colonial history.

But these immense losses, while never recovered, were partially offset last week following an act of generosity: a massive donation of 1,104 fossils, all originally found in Brazil, to the museum ahead of its reopening.

Among the fossils gifted to the institution are the plant Brachyphyllum, the pterosaur Tupandactylus imperator, an extinct aquatic lizard and a variety of turtles and insects. The entire assortment was donated by Burkhard Pohl, a Swiss-German collector who maintains one of the world’s largest collections of fossils.

“We felt it was the right thing to do to help rebuild a comprehensive collection of Brazilian fossils,” Pohl tells the Art Newspaper’s Gabriella Angeleti. “We hope that this initiative will inspire other collectors to follow suit and join this important effort. I strongly believe that a collection is a living organism that must constantly evolve—a collection locked away in a basement is a dead collection.”

Fossil collector Burkhard Pohl (far left) and museum officials present a variety of fossils Pohl has donated to the museum's collections.
Burkhard Pohl (far left) and others present some of the 1,104 fossils donated to Brazil's National Museum. Diogo Vasconcellos / National Museum of Brazil

Importantly, the entirety of Pohl’s donation originates from Brazil’s Araripe Basin, a region home to two fossil-rich areas known as the Crato and Romualdo formations, which are 115 million and 110 million years old, respectively, according to a statement from the museum.

“You can have a great building, but without a collection, a museum is nothing,” Frances Reynolds, president of the Instituto Inclusartiz cultural foundation who helped facilitate Pohl’s donation, tells the Guardian’s Constance Malleret.

Pohl’s collection won’t only help fill displays inside the museum, but it will also be examined behind the scenes. Many of the specimens seem ripe for producing new discoveries: Two unique dinosaur fossils, thought to be small raptors, were previously unstudied in scientific literature, and two pterosaur skulls are expected to represent new species. Additionally, the collection includes Tetrapodophis, which is hypothesized to be the oldest snake fossil ever found.

A fossil of Tetrapodophis amplectus, one of the earliest known snakes which is now considered to be an ancient variety of lizard.
A fossil of Tetrapodophis amplectus is being gifted to the museum. Handerson Oliveira / National Museum of Brazil

Pohl leads the Interprospekt Group, a Switzerland-based mining and research company that is currently sponsoring paleontologists’ digs in the Hell Creek Formation of Wyoming and Montana, in collaboration with the National Museum. Any dinosaur skeletons that are found could later be displayed in Brazil.

“We Brazilian paleontologists have never had an opportunity like this, to be at a legendary site in the United States, being able to apply our knowledge in the search for fossils, find these fossils and also replenish our collection with material that we never had,” Juliana Sayão, a paleontologist at Brazil’s National Museum, says in the statement.

A Brachyphyllum fossil
A Brachyphyllum fossil, excavated in Brazil, was among the artifacts gifted to the museum by Pohl. Diogo Vasconcellos / National Museum of Brazil

Since 1942, Brazil has prohibited the commercial export of its fossils, but these artifacts were still traded in a black market in the 1970s and 1990s and even are sold today. The donated fossils’ return from a private collection is a big step, the museum says, that could set a precedent in restoring Brazil’s archaeological history to the country.

Last year, Denmark’s own National Museum announced it would return a cloak made from scarlet ibis feathers by Brazil’s Tupinambá people, a sacred relic that had been in Copenhagen since 1689.

“The most important thing is to show to the world, in Brazil and outside Brazil, that we are uniting private people and public institutions,” Alexander Kellner, the National Museum’s director, tells the New York Times Michael Greshko. “We want others to follow this example, if possible, to help us with this really herculean task.”

(Left to Right): Burkhard Pohl, Frances Reynolds, and Alexander Kellner.
(Left to Right): Burkhard Pohl, Frances Reynolds and Alexander Kellner. Diogo Vasconcellos / National Museum of Brazil

While the museum was originally slated to reopen in 2022, in time for Brazil’s 200th anniversary, rebuilding efforts have been slow and expensive. The entire process is estimated to cost between $75 million and $98 million, Artforum reports.

When it opens its doors again, now expected in April 2026, the museum hopes to have more than 10,000 artifacts on display, alongside digitized versions of some of those that were lost.

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