From the backwaters of Wyoming, Montana, Dakotas, and Wisconsin, ghosts of the past emerge: skeletons of dinosaurs that end up in auction houses, where they’re sold for millions of dollars to collectors, institutions, and even Hollywood actors willing to make fortunes to pay for you. Although the trade has always existed, new territory was broken with the sale of Sotheby’s in 1997 Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed Sue for $8.4 million found in South Dakota; Nine bidders competed for the animal, and the winner was Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
This landmark sale unveiled new business for fossil hunters and auction houses. Another in November 2020 at Christie’s New York t rex (Stan) sold for $31.8 million. Never had a dinosaur fetched so much. Discovered in South Dakota in 1987, the skeleton contains 188 bones – 70% of the total – and its skull is the most complete and best-preserved ever found. Two years later it turned out that the United Arab Emirates were the buyers for their new natural history museum.
On November 30, Christie’s planned to auction another t rex – Shen – in Hong Kong, for which around 25 million dollars should be asked. However, on Sunday the auction house said it was withdrawing the sale after questions surfaced about the number of replica bones used in the specimen.
Dinosaurs are becoming a luxury item that only the wealthy can afford
US paleontologist Steve Brusatte
Palaeontologists raise their voices: “They are time thieves,” they accuse private collectors and auctioneers. Fossils are valuable for the information they contain, but in the foyer of an oligarch’s mansion they are nothing but a handful of ancient bones. It’s a loss for science. “It’s a destructive and desperate situation for scientists. There is no end in sight to this rampant commodification,” said Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College (Wisconsin).
In May, Christie’s sold a specimen called Hector, the skeleton of an a Deinonychus (a cousin of the Velociraptor), the only one privately owned, for $12.4 million. The competition – Sotheby’s – responded two months later with one of the only 20 known gorgosaur, which cost $6.1 million. Previously, in 2021, the Parisian house of Drouot auctioned a triceratops named Big John for 6.6 million euros; his whereabouts are unknown.
“Become a dinosaur […] a luxury item that only the richest can afford,” laments American paleontologist Steve Brusatte. Science needs samples to understand; for example it takes 70 gorgosaur to distinguish the characteristics that determine their sex.
The gluttony seems to come from the auction houses, who claim in their own defense that they are platforms governed by the laws of supply and demand. And generosity, too: James Hyslop, scientific director at Christie’s London, argues that a private buyer could loan or donate the skeleton to a museum. Finally, he points out that not many private homes can support a 40-foot length Tyrannosaurus rex.
The root of the problem lies in the remote countries where these skeletons are found. Under US law, anything found on private property belongs to its owner, which explains why most of the skeletons auctioned come from that country. Nothing stands in the way of export either. On the other hand, Italy, France, Brazil, China and Mongolia have closed their borders (actor Nicolas Cage had to go back Tarbosaurus Batar skull to the latter country because it had been smuggled out). And in Spain, the fossils of vertebrates automatically belong to the Spanish state. Meanwhile, in the US, celebrities like actor Leonardo DiCaprio are showing his Diplodocus and Allosaurus Skull at his California mansion.