Mr Phipps says, “I would describe myself as a dinosaur cowboy. Others would call him a commercial fossil prospector. Mr Phipps spends his time finding, digging up and preparing fossils to sell to potential buyers. When he made the discovery in 2006, he hit the headlines. “Dueling Dinosaurs”, the complete skeletons of a Triceratops horridus and a Tyrannosaurus rex buried alive by a landslide while locked in a deadly embrace. Pictured above, this is possibly the most spectacular fossil specimen ever found.
Prospectors such as Mr. Phipps supply a thriving market for dinosaur fossils, fueled by wealthy private collectors. The boom began in 2018 when French auction house Aguttes sold a nearly complete skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur (believed to be a relative of Allosaurus fragilis) for $2.4 million at a glamorous event on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. This escalated further when London auctioneer Christie’s sold “Stan” – one of the most complete T. rex fossils ever found – for $31.8 million in 2020, a record.
“There has been a serious increase in demand for dinosaur specimens since then,” says Cassandra Hatton, head of natural history at Sotheby’s, another auction house, this time based in New York. In the past two years, at least six specimens have sold for $6 million or more, including the “Dueling Dinosaur” in 2020. The next big sale is likely to take place in late July, when Sotheby’s is about to auction off another nearly complete skeleton that — though, for now, it’s limited — has been tight-lipped on the details.
For some scientists it is all a joke. The qualities that make fossils attractive to collectors—rarity, uniqueness, and completeness—are also the qualities that make them scientifically valuable. This has caused controversy in the field, with some concerned that the influx of private buyers is bad for science. “There is concern that the cost will put museums and other low-budget public institutions out of reach for valuable specimens,” says paleontologist Professor Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London. In an open letter to Christie’s in 2020, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), a US scientific body, warned that “fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are potentially lost to science.”
For this reason, many scientific journals – including the Journal of Paleontology and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology – refuse to publish studies on privately held fossils. SVP would like the journals to go further, and exclude private specimens that have been given on long-term loan to museums.
Not all paleontologists agree. Dissenters say there is mixed evidence that private collectors are actually valuing museums. The secret buyer who bought “Stan” at Christie’s in 2020 – amidst much humiliation – was revealed in 2022 to be the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism. It bought the fossil as the centerpiece of the Abu Dhabi Natural History Museum, which is due to open in 2025. Similarly, “Dueling Dinosaurs,” by the end of the year, will become a main attraction at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. Both specimens will be available for study by scientists as well as for the public to admire.
Even when specimens end up in the hands of private collectors, their owners are often happy to support scientists. Niels Nielsen, a former Danish investment banker, bought “Tristan” – a jet-black T. rex – in 2014, then offered the fossil, free of charge, on long-term loan to the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Since then “Tristan” has been moving between the natural history museums of Berlin and Copenhagen.
A similar arrangement has been announced for “Big John” – the largest specimen of Triceratops horridus ever found. In 2021, “Big John” was sold for $7.7 million to a buyer who was later revealed to be Siddhartha Pagidipati, an American businessman. The fossil is to be sent on long-term loan to the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa. “Our interest in purchasing Big John and other specimens is first and foremost to make them available to the public for further research,” says Mr. Pagidipati.
Not everyone agrees with the ban on research in journals. Oliver Rauhut is curator at the Paleontological Museum in Munich and one of about 50 signatories to a letter published in Palaeontologische Zeitschrift in 2020 criticizing the SVP proposals. He has given the example of Archeopteryx. First described in 1861, it was an early species of feathered dinosaur that helped prove that modern birds descended from ancient reptiles. Each of the dozens of known specimens of Archeopteryx was found, collected and prepared by enthusiastic private collectors. In a paper on the subject, Dr. Rauhut wrote, “seems arbitrary” to exclude such fossils from the scientific literature simply because they are privately owned.
Others argue that scientists in this field, despite their noble intentions, can be of little help. “Every year, thousands of fossils around the world are exposed to the elements by normal geological processes before turning to dust without trace,” says Ms. Hatton of Sotheby’s. In December 2022 her firm sold “Maximus” – a remarkably intact T. Rex Skull—for $6.1 million. Except for a badly bruised clavicle, the rest of the specimen was disintegrated by exposure to snow, wind and rain. Had it been found earlier, she says, perhaps more skeletons would have been recovered. “In the real world, most public institutions barely have the necessary staff and funds to ensure basic operations,” says Dr. Rauhut, who thinks that private collectors can provide useful support for public institutions.
Nearly all fossils purchased at auction in recent years were taken from the Hell Creek Formation, a geological deposit that spans Montana, Wyoming and the two Dakotas. There’s a good reason for this: In the US, there is clear legal precedent that guarantees that fossils found on private land belong to the landowner and can be legally traded.
that’s unusual. Besides Hell Creek, the most important fossil-containing deposits in the world are in Xinjiang in China, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Campanha in Brazil, and in Argentine Patagonia. In all four countries, dinosaur fossils are considered state property. This doesn’t stop the trade – but it does push it into the black market, where crime syndicates smuggle fossils across national borders. Given their illegality, such fossils are unlikely to ever fall into the hands of a scientist.
Staunch supporters of privatized fossil-hunting argue that a growing legal market can help curb this skepticism. Large Western auction houses, often criticized for enabling sales to anonymous billionaires, demand the same provenance assurances as they do for fine art and antiquities. The hope is that this will make it more difficult for unscrupulous dealers to pass off samples obtained by mistake as legitimate. “It may not always seem like it,” argues Ms. Hatton, “but we’re all on the same side.”
Correction (25 May 2023): This article previously stated that the fossil auctioned by Aguttes in 2018 had not been seen since. He was wrong. It is permanently on loan to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, where it is displayed to the public. We are sorry for the mistake.
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