Magazine On Art

Dem bones, dem sky-high bones

Dinosaur skeletons have stalked their way out of the museum world and into that of well-heeled collectors

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1895, the pioneering American palaeontologist Edward Cope sold 10,000 pieces from his fossil collection to the American Museum of Natural History for $32,000. Included in the cache was a vertebrae found by Cope three years earlier in South Dakota and attributed by him to an extinct herbivore. In fact, it belonged to a Tyrannosaurus rex and was the first fossil to be discovered of that fabled creature.

Since then as many as fifty further T.rexes have been unearthed, most of them partial and comprising far less than half of the original skeleton — the majority of the bones having been washed away, predated or ground to dust over the millennia.

For a century or so the fossils’ interest lay largely in their scientific value but in 1997 FMNH PR 2081, a specimen nicknamed “Sue” after Sue Hendrikson, the woman who found it, was sold at Sotheby’s for $8,362,500. Funds were raised from donors, including Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and McDonald’s, and she is now on display in the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Sue is 90 per cent complete and her bones represent a trove of information, including that she died at 28 and had suffered from gout.

Funds were raised from donors, including Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and McDonald’s

The sale alerted collectors, bone hunters, dealers and auction houses to a leap in the value of fossils, with the Jurassic Park film franchise helping to endow the carnivorous dinosaurs especially with a premium value. In 2019, the fossil skeleton of an infant T. rex was put up for sale on eBay with a “buy it now” price of $2.95m and a “no returns” policy. Prank bidders disrupted the sale and it failed to find a bidder.

Nevertheless, the fuss exacerbated the friction between palaeontologists who want such specimens displayed in museums and available for study, land-owners who want to maximise the return on fossils found under their soil (and indeed do they really “own” such national natural treasures?), and collectors who want a spectacular piece of 65-million-year-old sculpture in their homes.

What the abortive sale proved was that dinosaur skeletons had stalked their way out of the museum world and into that of well-heeled collectors. One such was the Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage who in 2007 bought the skull of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a T. rex cousin, for $270,000, winning a bidding war against Leonardo DiCaprio, but later gave up the fossil when it was discovered that it had been illegally exported from Mongolia.

The extent of bone inflation became clear in 2020, when “Stan”, a 70 per cent complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered in 1987, was sold by Christie’s New York to an unknown buyer for $31,800,000. Stan was offered in a sale alongside blue-chip twentieth century paintings because, as the auction house put it, he was an “archetype, movie star, pop-culture celebrity” who “sits very naturally against a Picasso, a Jeff Koons or an Andy Warhol”.

After the sale, Stan disappeared, but has just re-emerged after researchers at National Geographic magazine scoured US trade records and found a 5.6 ton, $31.8 million shipment leaving New York for the United Arab Emirates in 2021. The Abu Dhabi culture authorities have subsequently announced that Stan is destined for a new natural history museum being constructed alongside the Louvre and Guggenheim off shoots on the emirate’s “Museum Island” and due for completion in 2025. Abu Dhabi now owns both the world’s most expensive painting — the $450 million Salvator Mundi attributed by some to Leonardo — as well as its most expensive fossil.

Meanwhile, in Paris in 2021 a Triceratops named “Big John” was bought by a private collector for $7.7 million. Despite being the largest known Triceratops fossil it lacked the cachet of the carnivores such as “Hector”, a half skeleton of a Deinonychus, the inspiration for the Velociraptors of Jurassic Park, which doubled its auction estimate when it was sold in May 2022 for $12.4 million, even though the major part of the skull was missing.

Palaeontologists are watching with a degree of trepidation

Now, a lot that might threaten Stan’s auction record is being put up for sale at Christie’s Hong Kong on 30 November, again as part of a modern art sale. “Shen” (above), meaning “god-like”, is a 54 per cent complete T. rex. The 79 recovered bones were excavated from private land in the Hells Creek Formation, Montana, in 2020, with “additional cast elements frame-mounted into an anatomically accurate hunting pose”. It carries an estimate of $25 million. If Shen sells and remains in Asia it will be the only T. rex on that continent.

What the successful buyer will get for their millions is not only the third T. rex ever sold at auction but a specimen of incredible rarity — scholars have somehow estimated that only one in 80 million T. rexes has been preserved as a fossil. They will also gain something that might be almost as appealing — naming rights to the beast. It has been temporarily called Shen because the “S” follows both Sue and Stan but it might yet become a Nigel.

Palaeontologists are watching with a degree of trepidation. Before Stan sold, numerous casts were taken of his remains, some for study, others for sale (the buff movie action hero, The Rock, owns a cast of Stan’s head) but it is not clear how much of a chance, if any, scientists have had to study Shen. Whether they ever will depends very much on the whim of the buyer. For scientists, the trouble with dinosaur fossils is that dem bones have become just too expensive.

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