Going once, going twice: Dinosaur bones are up for auction

Wealthy private buyers are scooping up some pretty giant items.

“You guys have to come over for dinner soon, we have a new T. rex skeleton we’re dying to show you!” — some billionaire, apparently.

A T. rex skeleton with a red price tag with money signs on it dangling from the claw.

While it seems unfathomable that the giant reptiles of the Mesozoic era are now collecting dust in the far wing of someone’s mansion, it’s sadly true.

The ultra-wealthy are snatching up dinosaur fossils at auctions for mind-blowing sums:

  • Stan, the T. rex skeleton, became the most expensive fossil ever when it sold for $31.8m at a Christie’s auction in 2020 — more than 4x the estimates.
  • That smoked the previous record of the T. rex Sue, which sold for $8.4m at auction in 1997.
  • The world’s biggest triceratops skeleton, 66m-year-old Big John, went for $7.7m at a Paris auction house in 2021.
  • In 2022, Christie’s sold a deinonychus specimen named Hector for $12.4m, more than 2x the estimated price despite only having half its bones.

If these sound like good buys to you, then mark your calendar: Apex the stegosaurus is up for auction at Sotheby’s in July, with an estimated value of $4m-$6m.

If this instead makes you worried…

… Good eye! Many paleontologists agree.

In the US, fossils discovered on private land are fair game to sell.

And when commercial paleontologists hand their discoveries over to auction houses instead of academic institutions, it causes several problems:

  • The huge price tags of prior sales have inflated fossil prices, so even though academic institutions can purchase them at public auctions, they’re less likely to be able to afford them.
  • There’s little transparency around private buyers, and each piece sold shrinks the pool of specimens paleontologists can use for research.
  • Fewer than 20% of T. rex fossils scooped up by private collectors have ended up in a museum, per Business Insider.

Although, sometimes, they do make it back: Stan is headed to Abu Dhabi’s new natural history museum, and Big John is on loan to the Glazer Children’s Museum in Florida.

You know who definitely doesn’t have a dinosaur? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who debunked the rumor that he purchased Stan — everyone relax, it’s just a replica.

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