Days before a highly anticipated Hong Kong auction, Christie’s removed a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil from its catalog, stating that it would “benefit from further study,” per the New York Times’ Julia Jacobs and Zachary Small.
The skeleton’s withdrawal comes after experts raised questions about the number of replica bones in the fossil and ambiguous marketing language. It was expected to fetch between $15 million and $25 million at auction.
The T. rex, which the auction house referred to as “Shen,” was set to be auctioned on November 30. In a statement, Christie’s described Shen as a “rare, scientifically important” skeleton that had been “researched by leading paleontologists from global institutions.” The auction house did not identify Shen’s owner.
Trouble began for Christie’s when Peter Larson, president of fossil company Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, noticed that Shen looked very similar to another T. rex fossil: “Stan,” a skeleton that Larson’s team had excavated in 1992. While the organization sold Stan’s bones through Christie’s for a record $31.8 million in 2020, it retained intellectual property rights. Per the Times, Larson recognized a number of Stan’s particularities in Shen, such as holes in the specimen’s left jaw.
“They’re using Stan to sell a dinosaur that’s not Stan,” Larson told the Times a few days before the sale was canceled. “It’s very misleading.”
In light of Larson’s concerns, a lawyer for Black Hills reached out to Christie’s to inquire about Shen’s similarity to Stan and raise concerns about their ambiguous marketing language, including a claim that Shen was “54 percent represented by bone density.”
David A. Burnham, a vertebrate paleontology preparator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, says he calculated the bone density figure by “computing the area of each individual bone represented using measuring software,” per the Times. Christie’s cited Burnham as one of the experts who studied Shen.
However, some fossil experts question whether bone density is a legitimate figure. “Bone density has no scientific meaning whatsoever” in this context, Margaret Lewis, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, tells the Times.
John R. Nudds, another researcher Christie’s cited as having studied Shen, tells the Times that based on bone count, roughly three-quarters of the original bones in the skeleton are casts of Stan. Most dinosaur skeletons are discovered incomplete and require casts of other fossils to appear whole.
Weeks of negotiations between the company’s lawyer and the auction house ensued, prompting Christie’s to modify its language about Shen various times, per the Times.
The auction house added the following note to a webpage about Shen: “Replica bones that were added to original bones (referred to as STAN™ elements) were created by, and purchased from, Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc.” It also removed a line from a statement that said Shen would be “auctioned with full rights and all soft assets relating to it,” and replaced its original $15 to $25 million estimate with “estimate on request.”
On Sunday, Christie’s called off the sale. “After consultation with the consignor of the Tyrannosaurus rex scheduled for sale on 30 November in Hong Kong, Christie’s has decided to withdraw the lot,” a spokesperson for Christie’s, Edward Lewine, said in a statement. “The consignor has now decided to loan the specimen to a museum for public display.”
“I do not necessarily blame Christie's for this,” Larson tells CNN’s Tara Subramaniam and Oscar Holland. “They pulled it from the auction, which ... is what they should have done.”
Auctions of dinosaur fossils have always been controversial. Museums, universities and other research institutions have long raised concerns that private sales keep scientifically significant specimens out of the hands of researchers. In 2020, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was a vocal opponent to Christie’s sale of Stan. “Scientifically important vertebrate fossils are part of our collective natural heritage and deserve to be held in public trust,” the organization wrote in an open letter to the auction house.
Sotheby’s will sell the fossilized skull of a different T. rex, named “Maximus,” on December 9. It is expected to fetch $15 to $20 million.