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Auction dinosaurs: the boom in the sale of prehistoric fossils


There have already been auctions of complete skeletons for more than 30 million dollars. How the business works and the concern of academic researchers.

Crouched above a snow-covered quarry that doubles as a fossil hunting ground, Peter Larson points to

a worn 4-inch fragment

peeking out of a white blanket.

A common stone to

the untrained eye

, but to Larson an obvious dinosaur bone.

“It's 145 million years old, give or take,” says the 70-year-old fossil expert and dealer

as he walks through a dig

that has already uncovered seven dinosaurs.

Hulett, Wyoming, USA is fertile ground for the current dinosaur bone-hunting craze with its population

of buried fossils

, which quite possibly exceeds its human population of 309 people.

Larson has been digging here for more than 20 years, ever since Sue, a

T. rex

fossil he helped unearth, went up for $8.4 million at auction in 1997, ushering

in a boom

in the prehistoric bone market.

Fossil hunting has become a multi-billion dollar business much to

the chagrin of academic paleontologists

, who fear specimens of scientific interest will be sold to the highest bidder.

Auctioned T. rex skull.

Photo: The New York Times.

Sue's record price was surpassed by Stan, another

T. rex

dug up by Larson's company and sold at auction by Christie's in 2020 for $31.8 million.

This year, a



the inspiration for the velociraptors

depicted in

Jurassic Park

) sold for $12.4 million, a


fetched $6.1 million, and Sotheby's auctioned off a single T. rex tooth for more than $100,000. .

It is estimated that next month a

T. rex

skull will fetch between 15 and 20 million dollars with its sale.

Buyers include investors, Hollywood stars,

technology industry leaders

and a host of new or developing natural history museums from China and the Middle East.

The market for dinosaur bones began to grow with the sale of sue, the skeleton of a T.rex that, in 1997, was auctioned for 8.4 million dollars.

Christie's expected

another very successful dinosaur auction

soon, predicting that the skeleton of a

T. rex

named Shen would fetch between $15 million and $25 million.

But that auction in Hong Kong was canceled 10 days ahead of schedule, when questions were raised by Peter Larson and other experts.

Larson was examining a photograph of Shen when he realized that he looked familiar:

the skull closely resembled Stan's


She “she Has the same scars as Stan's face;

her teeth are in the same position, ”said the expert.

Larson's company, the Black Hills Institute for Geological Research, retains Stan's intellectual property rights, limiting itself to

selling polyurethane casts of

the specimen for $120,000 each.

The auctioning off of fossils angers academic paleontologists.

They think that the most valuable remains could be lost.

Photo: The New York Times.

Photo: The New York Times.

After a lawyer from the Black Hills Institute

challenged the issue

through emails and phone calls, Christie's clarified in its online marketing materials that Shen had been completed with replicas of Stan's bones and withdrew Shen from the sale. arguing that "it would be the subject of further study."


T. rex

named Sue

Things were simpler early in his career, Larson recalls, when universities, museums and

a small group of private collectors

were the only ones interested in buying natural history pieces.

The trouble began in 1992, when Larson got out of the shower to

find his Hill City, South Dakota, fossil store

taped up and surrounded by FBI agents.

They had a search warrant demanding the institute turn over Sue, the largest

T. rex

found to date.

The skeleton had been discovered two years earlier by Sue Hendrickson, then a volunteer excavator, who came across

bones jutting out of the side

of a cliff at the Cheyenne River Reservation.

When Sue's dig was complete, the Black Hills team—including Larson and his brother Neal, among others—presented the owner of the land, Maurice Williams,

with a check for $5,000


But the US government claimed that Sue was actually their property, since

the land where she was found

was in their custody.

Williams further maintained that there was never any deal for

the fossil company to

buy Sue: he denied that the $5,000 was for the dinosaur, saying he thought it was for access to the land.

Peter Larson's company sued the government to get Sue back, but after an appeals court ruled against the institute, Williams was finally allowed to

put the skeleton up for auction

in a sale mediated by Sotheby's, which announced it. as “a very important and virtually complete fossil skeleton”.

The winner was the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which had financial support from Disney and McDonald's.

The sale transformed the field.

“People, especially rich people, realized, 'Hey, I can buy one of these!'” said George Winters, managing director of a trade group Larson helped start that

represents fossil dealers.


Once he went in to carve the money, the shovels followed.

“I call them dinosaur dreamers,” Larson observed.

“People who had the idea that all you had to do was

drive to an outcrop

, attach a strong chain to the tail of a dinosaur, dig it out of the ground, and sell it for millions.”

In an effort to curtail the commercial industry, the federal government charged Larson and his colleagues with a

spate of fossil-related crimes unrelated to

Sue's dig.

In 1995, Peter Larson was convicted of two customs violations for failing to declare money involved in fossil deals.

He served 18 months of a two-year prison sentence;

During his imprisonment he gave lectures on fossils as part of a series of lectures.

smash records

The Stan dinosaur was discovered by an amateur paleontologist named Stan Sacrison.

In 1992, the Black Hills Institute began excavation, using a jackhammer,

picks, and shovels to unearth it from a hill

in northwestern South Dakota.

The following year, while the company was still working on the skeleton, the movie

Jurassic Park

was released in theaters , fueling popular interest in dinosaurs.

The 43-foot-long skeleton was displayed behind floor-to-ceiling glass cases at Christie's in Manhattan in 2020.

Stan sold that year for $31.8 million, a record for a fossil and nearly four times the auction house's highest estimate.

National Geographic


reported this year that

it would go on display at a developing natural history museum

in the United Arab Emirates.

“It was a shock that a fossil could cost so much money,” says Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

The scientific community feels excluded by the prices.

There is remarkable perplexity in a large number of men and women of science before

the growing commercial market

, and increasing concern about the possibility that scientifically important specimens disappear to remain in private mansions.

They also worry paleontologists that the market may

encourage illegal digging

and that American landowners—who, by law, typically own the fossils found on their land—will favor commercial fossil hunters over academic researchers.

“Ranchers who used to let you go fossil collecting now wonder why they would let you do it for free,” observes Jingmai O'Connor, paleontologist at the Field Museum, “when

a commercial collector

could dig up the bones and the profits would be shared.”


The United States is an atypical country from a legal point of view.

Other dinosaur-rich countries, such as Mongolia and Canada, have

laws that make fossils government property


Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College in Wisconsin, believes that

the lack of protection of "natural heritage"

puts scientists in the United States at a disadvantage.

Peter Larson – who does not have an advanced degree and explains that he started working on a PhD in paleontology but

had to withdraw due to mounting legal debts

and the lingering effects of the Great Recession – welcomes a broader audience assigning him this kind of value to fossils, which he has liked since he was 4 years old.

“You have to be

happy that fossils are appreciated as works of art

”, he declares.

(Minutes before Stan went up for auction, a painting by the famous Mark Rothko sold for $31.3 million, half a million less than the fossil.)

Peter Larson didn't make a profit from Stan's auction, but he does a brisk business selling replicas of the fossil.

The company retains

its intellectual property rights

and often sticks a “TM” in the top corner of the Stan name to note that it is a registered trademark.

He also recently closed an agreement that suggests that

the current bone bonanza goes beyond high-level auctions : he sold a set of






that his team unearthed on some land

to a foreign museum .

Like many of his colleagues in the often confidential fossil trading world, Larson signed a non-disclosure agreement that

prevents him from disclosing the buyer and price


"It's the first time that I don't worry about paying the bills," says the paleontologist. 

Translation: Roman Garcia Azcarate.

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Source: clarin

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