In 1987, years before Jurassic Park would kick off a new era of dinomania, fossil hunter Stan Sacrison stumbled upon something interesting eroding out of the South Dakota badlands. Bone fragments gave away the presence of a big dinosaur, and, through an excavation carried out by the commercial fossil outfit Black Hills Institute in 1992, the fossil turned out to be a gorgeous Tyrannosaurus rex. The specimen was nicknamed “Stan” after its discoverer, and has been replicated in casts all over the world. But now Stan is gaining fame for another reason. The T. rex was just sold for a record-breaking amount, opening a new chapter in an ongoing tussle between academics, commercial dealers, and land owners, all based in the foundational question of who fossils belong to.
No one was expecting Stan to sell for so much. The famous Tyrannosaurus rex specimen went at auction for $31.8 million on October 6. That’s more than twice the adjusted value of Sue, the most complete T. rex yet found, which sold for over $8.3 million in 1997.
But to researchers, fossils are literally priceless. A dinosaur bone or skeleton is not like a painting or classic comic book. There’s no metric to assess its worth because its true value is as a time capsule from a distant time, and what can be learned from that fossil changes as science proceeds. A bone that might seem plain on the outside might hold important information about growth, body chemistry, or other aspects of dinosaur lives. But when a fossil goes to market, what a dinosaur sells for is entirely up to what bidders are willing to pay—and T. rex is the most sought-after dinosaur of all.
To date, Stan’s buyer hasn’t been announced. Nor has it been made clear whether the skeleton will end up at a museum like Sue did. The idea that Stan may wind up as a curio in someone’s home has been a persistent worry of paleontologists as it seems that every year another significant skeleton goes to auction.
A fossil kept in private hands is effectively lost to science, and studies of such fossils are often barred from publication. That’s because private owners can often deny access to researchers or sell off specimens to other parties, making it impossible for multiple research teams to verify previous studies. Given the sheer number of papers on the body mass, speed, and bite force of T. rex alone, keeping fossils in the public trust is imperative for paleontology to move forward.
Why Stan sold for so much is unclear. “There is a whole psychological aspect to the live bidding process,” points out University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz, Jr. “If the uniqueness if what the bidder wanted, they didn’t get that.” Multiple museums have casts of Stan on display, so it’s not the same as acquiring a new specimen or even a fossil still encased in stone.
Naturally, other T. rex specimens are out there. Around 50 partial skeletons have been uncovered, so studies of the dinosaur will still continue. But what worries paleontologists most is how this sale may have private land owners seeing dollar signs when they find fossils on their land.
While governments from Alberta, Canada, to Mongolia have natural history heritage laws that protect significant fossils wherever they are found, the United States is different. Dinosaurs and other vertebrate fossils are protected and require a permit if they’re on federal land, but the fate of fossils found on private land is up to the landowner. A rancher who stumbles on a Triceratops eroding out of a hill on their property can dig it up, call a museum, sell off individual pieces, or even smash the bones depending on their wishes. Dinosaurs thus get caught up in ownership tussles–a privately-owned specimen known as the “Dueling Dinosaurs” was recently the subject of a legal battle that found dinosaurs are the property of landowners and not the holders of mineral rights.
While commercial collectors have been a part of paleontology since the mid-19th century, the Sue debacle upended everything. “Sue is the specimen that monetized fossils in a big way,” Holtz says.
Initially found in 1990, Sue was embroiled in controversy almost as soon as the dinosaur was out of the ground. The Black Hills Institute claimed they paid land owner Maurice Williams for the dinosaur. Williams disputed that the payment was for excavation permission rather than ownership, and other parties from the Sioux to the United States Department of the Interior claimed ownership of the dinosaur. The FBI raided the Black Hills Institute to take possession of the bones in 1992, the fossils becoming part of a drawn-out legal case that raised additional charges of fossil-collecting malfeasance. In the end, Williams was given ownership of the fossil and Sue was bought for the Field Museum at auction for over $8 million with the financial help of organizations like Disney and McDonald’s. While museums have historically purchased important fossils, and some still do, the multimillion dollar sale of Sue indicated that some fossils could go for more than any museum could afford. Sue wouldn’t have ended up at the Field Museum without corporate help.
“Both the scientific and commercial community, as well as the public, took note of this in the 1990s and the sale of another specimen at such extraordinary price and to an unknown bidder was the exact worry of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists,” says North Carolina State University historian Elizabeth Jones. Suddenly T. rex was a hot commodity, with researchers and fossil dealers competing over the fate of several specimens that have their own convoluted backstories.
Following the sale of Sue, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology president Jessica Theodor says, “there were definitely increases in reports of researchers being locked out of sites on private land that they had previously had access to.” Partnerships that had in place for years started to become fraught as paleontologists wanted to work on the same outcrops while landowners requested fees, agreements with fossil dealers, or decided to excavate themselves. Given “the gobsmacking price on Stan,” Theodor says, these tensions may be inflamed again.
The global Covid-19 crisis has also put museums in an especially stressful spot. “When the pandemic has drastically affected most museums’ budgets, and staff cuts are widespread, the fear is that there is no way for museums to compete except via courting donors, whose priorities will often differ from what the museum might choose,” Theodor says. Not to mention that researchers could often carry out a great deal of research for the same amount of money. Some experts estimated on Twitter that they could run their departments for years, if not centuries, for the same price that Stan sold for.
To the consternation of paleontologists, the sale of Stan and the recent Discovery Channel show “Dino Hunters” are highlighting the price tag of fossils once again. For commercial dealers, dinosaur hunting is not about science but “treasure hunting” for significant specimens suitable for the homes of the wealthy. This spills over to the black market. Actor Nicolas Cage bought a Tarbosaurus fossil—a close relative of T. rex—that had to be returned to Mongolia when authorities realized that the dinosaur had been illegally smuggled out of the country. Likewise, paleontologists only know what the weird dinosaur Deinocheirus looked like because fossils of this rare and bizarre animal were rescued from the black market. Public sales like Stan are just the tip of the iceberg.
The fact that dinosaurs are more than just objects of scientific curiosity helps drive these high-profile sales. For some, a dinosaur is a statement of wealth, power, and influence. Historically, Jones says, “financing science was often done in exchange for social influence and public approval while trying to maintain a reputation of scientific credibility.” The tycoon Andrew Carnegie, for example, famously wanted the natural history museum that bears his name to have a big, impressive centerpiece dinosaur that still bears the name Diplodocus carnegii. “Stan’s sale and the debate along with it is an outgrowth of this history that will reinforce these tensions in the future,” Jones says.
That ranchers or private land owners want to cash in is understandable, Holtz says. “We could always hope that the majority of landowners will be more interested in the scientific importance of fossil data than their financial benefit,” Holtz says, “but it is unreasonable to think that everyone will altruistically give up something that might change their livelihood and security.”
The decades-long argument over America’s fossils is at a stalemate. “The U.S. isn’t likely to declare that fossil found on private land as part of the natural heritage anytime soon, and anyone expecting this to happen doesn’t have much experience with looking at how people in the U.S. treat property rights, water rights, and so forth,” Holtz says.
“I imagine that Stan will not be the last mega-fossil sale,” Jones adds.