On Tuesday, the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton “Stan”, starting price at $6 million to $8 million, was sold after a 20-minute bidding war for $31,847,500 at Christie’s New York, marking a new record for a dinosaur fossil. In 1997, an almost complete (90%) Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, also known as “Sue the T.rex”, sold for $8.36 million – or nearly $13.5 million if you adjust for inflation – to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The identity of Stan’s buyer has not been made public.
The fossil is named after the amateur paleontologist Stan Sacrison, who in 1987, during a field-trip in South Dakota, discovered a bone protruding from a rocky cliff in the 66-million-year-old Hell Creek Formation. Excavated in 1992 and after 30,000 hours of cleaning and assembling the bones, the reconstructed skeleton was owned by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a commercial company specialized in fossil trade.
Only around 50 Tyrannosaurus fossils have been discovered since the species was described in 1902. Stan is the fifth most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil discovered to date, including 188 original bones, more than 70% of a complete skeleton.
Standing 13 feet (almost 4 m) high and 40 feet (~12 m) long, Stan was an adult when he died, maybe of old age. The bones show notable signs of wear and indication that the dinosaur experienced multiple attacks and illnesses throughout his life. Puncture wounds on the back of his skull and rib indicate that he was at one point bitten by another predatory dinosaur. Other bite marks at the base of his skull suggest his neck was once broken and caused the fusion of two vertebrate, resulting in a loss of mobility and pain for the rest of his life.
The last two decades have seen a significant rise in the dinosaur fossils market, fueled by wealthy, sometimes eccentric, collectors. In 2006, the skull of Tarbosaurus bataar, a dinosaur related to Tyrannosaurus rex, was acquired by Hollywood star Nicolas Cage for $276,000. In 2018, a yet-to-be identified species of theropod dinosaur was sold for $2.3 million, including the promise to the winning bidder to name the species. For herbivorous dinosaurs, like a Triceratops, private collectors are willing to pay from $170,000 to $400,000, and a large sauropod, like a Diplodocus, can cost from $570,000 to $1.1 million.
Although the buying, selling, and trading of fossils has been a principle part of paleontological practice over the centuries, the trade in fossils is nowadays a multimillion-dollar industry around the world, and many paleontologists criticize the recent developments. Wealthy collectors outbid public institutions, and unique fossils disappear into private collections, eventually out of reach for future research. Commercialization also can blurry the line between illegal and legal activities. The story of Sue the T. rex includes many years of legal battle for ownership of the valuable fossil. Cage’s dinosaur skull was acquired from a “commercial paleontologist” and smuggled out of Mongolia under very dubious circumstances. The actor returned the fossil after the story got public.
Private collectors and fossil trade companies disagree vehemently with such one-sided arguments. In many cases, public institutions don’t have the money, staff and time to discover, excavate and study new fossil sites. Many scientifically important findings over the years were made by amateur paleontologists or private companies, investing time and money to cover less studied areas in remote regions. There is far less controversy about selling or buying gemstones or minerals – fossils shouldn’t be an exception. Sales and auctions are public, and in many cases, museums got their fossils on display by buying them from the same people that now are under scrutiny.
Want to read more? Try:
The Dinosaur Artist – Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, by Paige Williams (2018)
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World, by Steve Brusatte (2018)