Sotheby’s New York Luxury Week auctions offered a surprising first earlier this month. This series of sales showcases “the best of the best” in opulent goods, from jewellery and cars to wine and handbags. So you’d expect rare Rolexes or a mint condition 911 Porsche Targa, but the rarest possession up for grabs this time was a skull.
Named Maximus, it’s one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skulls ever discovered. The first of its kind to appear at public auction, it sold for $6,069,500 to one of a new breed of art collectors who view dinosaurs as collectibles.
These fossil sales have been increasing for a while. A T rex skeleton named Shen, with an estimate of $25m, was withdrawn from a Christie’s auction in November. Before Maximus, Sotheby’s sold a gorgosaurus for $6.1m last summer – one of only 20 existing fossils of the species. Dinosaur skeletons are showing up at art fairs, too. In the UK this year, the David Aaron Gallery sold a 154-million-year-old camptosaurus at Frieze London and a triceratops skull at the Masterpiece art fair in July. The ArtAncient gallery was the first to bring fossils to Frieze London, selling a 50-million-year-old crocodile in 2019.
“It used to be specialist collectors who bought fossils but dinosaurs have been picked up by collectors who would normally be more interested in art,” says Professor Paul Barrett, senior dinosaur specialist at London’s Natural History Museum. “Dinosaurs are rare and have aesthetic value. They can also reflect their owner’s personality in a way that a Rembrandt can’t. The T rex is a fearsome predator and a collector might relate to that.
Also, in the same way that collectors diversified into fine wines and coins, fossils are a way of investing money.”
Million-dollar price tags for dinosaur bones are a modern phenomenon. It started with a sale that stunned the palaeontology world in 1997 when a T rex fossil nicknamed Sue sold in the US for $8.4m. At that time, the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, had just been released and there was new pop-culture interest in dinosaur skeletons. Sue became notorious as a result of a legal battle over her ownership. Since then, dinosaurs at auction and at art galleries have become a more common sight. Sue’s record price was broken by a T rex called Stan which sold at Christie’s in 2020 for $31.8m.
Peter Larson is a palaeontologist and president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota – leader of the team which found both Sue and Stan. Larson has been collecting fossils since he was four on his parents’ ranch and has excavated more T rex skeletons than any other palaeontologist. He says that his institute was probably the only professional business in the US involved in finding and preparing dinosaur bones for display. “After that, a bunch of people came in – ‘dinosaur dreamers’ who thought they’d make easy money, not realising how much work goes into finding and preparing [fossils].”
As well as untrained fortune seekers, fossil poachers and smugglers targeted dinosaur bones, particularly in countries such as China and Mongolia where prehistoric relics belong to the state. In many other countries, including the US and UK, fossils found on private land belong to the landowners and can be sold to the highest bidder.
Either way, museums and researchers have started to be priced out of buying rare specimens, or have missed discoveries because they were trafficked. “Most museums don’t have the resources to compete on a million-dollar price tag,” says Barrett. “There are some wealthy ones, particularly new museums in Dubai and Asia, but when dinosaurs disappear into private hands, it’s problematic. It’s uncertain what will happen to a specimen when its owner gets bored of it or needs to dispose of it. It’s also not available for scientific study.”
Some scientists have written letters of protest over sales. In 2018, Aguttes auction house in Paris offered a dinosaur fossil from an unknown species. Members of the Society for Vertebrate Palaeontology wrote an open letter to Aguttes asking for the sale to be stopped before the bones were lost to science. The fossil went to a private buyer for £1.7m.
But, says Barrett, ethical and legally operating commercial palaeontologists are vital for finding research specimens. “They find skeletons that would otherwise have eroded away . This trade is also of great value to the people involved. In Morocco and Madagascar, this is a good living for people without many options. The real problem is the lack of funding for museums.”
Larson also thinks that the new prices achieved by dinosaur fossils should be approached in a more practical way. “There are scientists who feel threatened by the auction sales because museums don’t have the money to compete. But the natural history museums haven’t gone to the private sector to raise money to purchase these specimens. If art galleries can do it, why can’t natural history museums? We live in a capitalist society – you can’t just wring your hands and wish it was different.”
Larson is also pleased that dinosaur relics are finally being recognised for their true value. “When you think about what museums pay for works of art that don’t have anywhere near the value of the wonderful dinosaur skeletons – they don’t have any scientific value and take much less work to prepare for show.
“A dinosaur skeleton has a beauty to it, an artistry.”