Here is an item you may want to acquire—the fossilized skeleton of a baby Tyrannosaurus rex. Yes, you can “Buy It Now” (May 2019) for $2.95 million, which might seem a bit steep, but shipping is included, and you can get frequent flyer miles if you pay by credit card.
Regardless of the deal’s value, the offering is making professional paleontologists’ skin crawl. The upsetting issue started in 1990 with a flat tire. While the rest of the team from the Black Hills Institute (BHI), the world’s largest commercial fossil dealer, went to town to get the flat fixed, experienced amateur paleontologist Sue Hendrickson decided to have a look at a previously unexplored cliff. Along its base, she found several small fossilized bones. Looking up, she discovered the end a large fossil sticking out. On return, the team, led by BHI owner Peter Larson, recognized her find as a Tyrannosaurus rex, the top-of-the-food-chain carnivore of the late dinosaur era 66 million years ago. In honor of the discoverer and his then-girlfriend, Larson named the beast Sue, although the sex of this or any other dinosaur has never been determined.
On a handshake deal, Larson paid land owner Maurice Williams $5000 to extract the entire find, which proved to be 90% intact and therefore by far the largest and best-preserved T rex skeleton ever discovered. Larson removed the fossils to the BHI lab in Hill City, South Dakota, for cleaning and eventual display or sale, but ownership of Sue was in dispute between Larson, Williams, and the federal government, to whom Williams had leased his land. In the end, the court awarded ownership of Sue to Williams.
Williams then contacted Sotheby’s to sell Sue. At the auction in 1997, some private collectors were in competition with several natural history museums for ownership, yet all but one of each were priced out as the bids passed an astounding $7 million mark within ten minutes. The representatives for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History had reached their predetermined bidding limit, and it looked like Sue would fall into private ownership. On a hunch that one more offer would work, the Field rep bid again. The auctioneer’s gavel came down. “Sold to the Field Museum for $7.6 million.” Sotheby’s got an extra 10% for its troubles.
The Field then invested an additional $2 million building a custom support frame for Sue, one that allows removal of any individual bone for study without disturbing the remainder of the display. And on its opening in 2000, what an impressive display it was. Sue, lunging with mouth open and sharp teeth exposed, greeted museum visitors in the main atrium for 17 years. Surely the Field Museum has recouped their hefty investment with ticket, book, and gift shop sales as well as museum memberships and international visibility as an institution dedicated to research and education. In 2018, the Field Museum moved Sue to her own exhibition hall and replaced her in the main reception atrium with a much larger and much older herbivorous dinosaur for the tune of $16.5 million. Sue’s replacement will have to work hard to prove its financial investment.
Coincidentally, publicity surrounding Sue occurred within several years of the debut of Jurassic Park, the fanciful, frightening computer-animated movie portraying dinosaurs in modern times. If dinosaur mania needed its flames fanned, this combo did the trick. Fossil hunting intensified as collectors saw million-dollar figures swirling around the discovery and retrieval of Sue-like specimens.
Many land owners began selling their property’s fossil rights to the highest bidder regardless of the digger’s method or intent. Those interested in fossils’ commercial value do not necessarily recognize or care much from which layer of rock their treasures were found. They have no incentive to consider the context of their find, for example, what other plant and animal fossils were present in the same layer.
By contrast, trained and disciplined paleontologists excavate methodically and respect the fossils’ scientific and educational import far above any sense of their commercial value. The pros take pains to carefully record the exact location of any finds in three dimensions and meticulously search the surrounding stratum for other deposits that will aid placing the fossil in context of the world as it then existed.
Furthermore, when a commercially mined fossil goes up for sale, cash-strapped universities and museums typically lose out. If the new owners display their treasures at home, their scientific and educational value plummets, much to the chagrin of professional paleontologists. A writer for Slate commented, “There is no more need for self-styled paleontologists than there is for amateur gynecologists.” Commercial enterprises counter that the exposed fossils they retrieve would otherwise crumble and weather away, useful to no one. I guess they are saying that an amateur gynecologist is better than none. You decide; but if you do buy Baby Rex, please donate it to a public institution, take a tax deduction, and keep the frequent flyer miles.
If $2.95 million is too steep for your budget, consider bidding on a nearly complete dodo skeleton that Christie’s in London is auctioning on May 24. It is expected to go for somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000.
Comments: “Love it, but it is bigger than my apartment.” “I already have one.” “I’ll take two.”