A massive fossilized skull that once belonged to a Tyrannosaurus rex is hitting the auction block next month. Experts from Sotheby’s—which is offering the specimen during a live sale in New York on December 9—say the 76-million-year-old skull is one of the most complete paleontologists have ever unearthed, rivaling only a handful kept at museums. It is expected to sell for $15 to $20 million.
Fossil hunters discovered the skull, nicknamed Maximus, on private land in the Hell Creek Formation, located in Harding County, South Dakota. The site has revealed several other well-known T. rex fossils, including Sue, which brought in $8.3 million when it became the first dinosaur ever sold at auction in 1997, as well as Stan, which sold for $31.8 million in 2020.
Paleontologists have also unearthed at the site the fossilized remains of Triceratopses, Edmontosaurs, Ankylosaurs, Pachycephalosaurs and various other creatures that roamed the planet during the Cretaceous period.
Sotheby’s didn’t say who discovered Maximus or identify the current owner. But auction house officials did say in a statement that the skull’s survival was a “great stroke of luck,” as weathering and erosion ate away at the rest of the dinosaur’s bones.
“Unearthed in one of the most concentrated areas for T. rex remains, the skull retained much of its original shape and surface characteristics with even the smallest and most delicate bones intact, with an extremely high degree of scientific integrity,” says Henry Galiano, a Sotheby’s natural history consultant, in a statement. “Without the work of experienced field paleontologists who carefully collected and preserved this skull, it may have eroded away and been lost to science forever.”
The winning bidder will get to take home the 200-pound, 6-foot-7.5 skull mounted on an iron pedestal. All of the bones come from a single T. rex—the owner didn’t add any composite pieces—which is also extremely rare. The tooth-bearing jaw elements are all there, as well as most of the external bones and many upper and lower teeth.
The skull also has two large puncture holes, which suggests that Maximus duked it out with another dinosaur, likely also a T. rex. Sotheby’s experts aren’t sure what led to the creature’s death.
The fact that it’s just a skull—not a full skeleton—could make the specimen all the more enticing.
“When you think about it, more people can fit a skull in their home than people who could fit a full dinosaur,” says Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s head of science and popular culture, to the Associated Press.
The auction of Maximus comes on the heels of another high-dollar fossil sale. In May, Christie’s sold a nearly complete Deinonychus antirrhopus fossil for $12.4 million, which far surpassed the pre-auction estimate of $4 to $6 million. Christie’s is also offering up a full T. rex skeleton in Hong Kong later this month; that specimen is expected to fetch $15 to $25 million.
The practice of auctioning off dinosaur fossils to private bidders is controversial among paleontologists and other experts. Some argue that auctions allow private collectors to get their hands on—and hide away—specimens that belong in public museums, while others worry that the high price tags will encourage illegal digging.
Of course, museums are free to submit bids too, which is exactly what happened with Stan, who now belongs to a new natural history museum in Abu Dhabi. More than 25 years ago, Sue also went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Officials at auction houses like Sotheby’s defend the sales, arguing that private buyers often end up making the fossils available to researchers eventually.
“Private collectors play a critical role in the distribution of objects to museum collections, often donating or loaning items for permanent or long-term view and research,” Hatton told Artnet in August. “... [M]ost collectors are at heart passionate about the study and preservation of fossils, and the pleasure of sharing these incredible items with others is common among the community of collectors.”