The Dinosaur Trade: How Celebrity Collectors and Glitzy Auctions Could be Damaging Science

Friday, June 22, 2018

Sue, the most expensive dinosaur ever sold at auction, was bought by the The Field Museum in Chicago for $8.36 million in 1997.  TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, a handful of rare dinosaur skeletons are auctioned into private hands for astronomical sums. But paleontologists fear that the private fossil trade ends up costing science, and the public, a huge amount in lost knowledge.

nside the Eiffel Tower, the atmosphere was tense. The only item up for auction was the skeleton of an unknown carnivorous dinosaur, and the buyers gathered in the room on the first floor of the historic monument, or preparing to bid over the phone, knew that the fossil could easily go for millions of Euros.

“Each bidder was thinking, raising the bid level, calculating, each one holding their breath,” says Eric Mickeler, who oversaw the auction for Augettes, the Parisian auction house that sold the unidentified dinosaur on June 4, 2018. The fossil, excavated in Wyoming in 2013, is thought to be from the Allosaurus genus of dinosaurs but has significant differences from known species, suggesting that it might belong to an as-yet unknown species. After half an hour of bidding, the dinosaur sold to an unknown private buyer for €2.3 million (£1.7m). According to Aguttes, the buyer promised that the skeleton would eventually end up on public display.

Before the auction even started, the scientific world was vocal in its disapproval. After hearing about the planned auction, the body that represents professional vertebrate paleontologists, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), wrote to Aguttes asking for the sale to be cancelled. “Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science,” the open letter warned.

“Fossils are not like ordinary art objects,” says David Polly, president of the SVP. “A skeleton like this is potentially a unique and irreplaceable piece of evidence of earth's past, and in that sense it's important to all of us.” But the private fossil trade is thriving, and no one can quite decide whether the industry, which can be a useful source of fossils for public museums, is harming or helping us to understand these ancient creatures.

At the core of this debate is a simple question. Should potentially-significant fossils that have lain underground for tens of millions of years be traded on the private market and potentially removed from the public eye forever, or should museums and public institutions have first dibs on these finds?

Every year, around five dinosaur skeletons pass through glitzy auction houses on their way into the hands of private collectors. In April this year, Parisian auction house Binoche et Giquello fetched just over €1.4 million (£1.2m) each for the skeletons of a Diplodocus and Allosaurus. In March 2017 it sold a Triceratops skull for €177,800 (£155,000) in an auction that included a 35-kilo meteorite fragment and a stuffed tiger. In December 2016, the near-complete skeleton of an Allosaurus was sold by Aguttes in Lyon for €1.1 million (£964,000). Again, the buyer promised the skeleton would be end on up public display, at an unspecified time and place.

But some skeletons sold at auction never even make it that far. In 2009, Samson, one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found, failed to meet its reserve price at a Las Vegas auction, but was eventually sold in after-auction negotiations for around $5 million (£3.8m). Its skull – unusual due to its fine condition and the fact that the dinosaur was a young adult – now sits in the lobby of a Californian software firm.

The skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a close relative of the T. rex, narrowly avoided ending up in a New York office block when it was repatriated to Mongolia after being unlawfully auctioned for $1 million in 2012. In December 2015 the actor Nicholas Cage agreed to return another bataar skull that he bought in 2007, after outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio at an auction in Beverly Hills. A near-complete mammoth skeleton, uncovered from the Siberian permafrost was not so lucky. In 2017 it was sold for €548,000 (£481,000) to a French waterproofing company with a mammoth for a logo.

These are only the specimens we know about. Fossil buyers at auction are not required to publicly disclose their identity or declare what they intend to do with their ancient trinkets, so many of the world’s most complete dinosaur skeletons are simply untraceable. “We've got people holding on to these vitally-important specimens,” says Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College in Wisconsin.

No one knows how many skeletons are in the hands of private collectors, but Carr has been keeping tracking of T. rex specimens. He estimates that at least 15 T. rex skeletons are in private hands – several of those are younger dinosaurs that are particularly crucial to his own research into how tyrannosauroids develop as they grow older. “It's a significant number that can really fill in gaps in our knowledge of T. rex,” he says. In his research, Carr has worked on around 40 T. rex skeletons held in public institutions. If he could work on these privately held skeletons, he would suddenly have access to tens of thousands of more precious data points.

As is rumoured to be the case in this month’s auction, private collectors often end up loaning their specimens to museums for public display. Of the 15 T. rex skeletons in private hands Carr estimates that at least four of them – Stan, Tristan, Tinker and TAD – are currently on public display. But for Carr, and many paleontologists, simply being on public display is not good enough.

To start with, dinosaurs in private hands are difficult to keep tabs on. Only a couple of weeks ago TAD, a privately-owned 12-metre long adult T. rex whose nickname is short for “The American Dinosaur”, suddenly popped up in the atrium of a Hong Kong shopping centre. Where it came from, or where it’ll go after the exhibition is torn down at the end of this month, is anyone’s guess.

For paleontologists like Carr, this is a major problem. “The cornerstone of all the sciences is reproducibility of observations,” he says. A T. rex skeleton that’s a permanent part of a university or museum collection can be examined by any paleontologist at any time. If 40 years from now a future paleontologist want to double-check one of Carr's measurements of a T. rex skull – or the technology to examine those skulls improved – those future paleontologists can go back to the same museum that Carr got his fossil from and measure the skull again to interrogate, double-check and improve upon his findings.

With privately-owned fossils there is no such guarantee. Even if a private collector loans a skeleton to a museum, as is the case with Stan, Tristan and Tinker, there’s no telling how long that specimen will remain in place before it’s whisked elsewhere at the whim of its owner. Because of the risk that a specimen might become unavailable in the future, Carr is unequivocal in his insistence that paleontologists should not study any skeleton in private hands, even if it’s on public display.

Carr is not alone in his insistence that paleontologists should draw a clear ethical line that keeps them from studying privately-owned fossils loaned to public collections. “That’s not good enough,” says Kenshu Shimada, a professor of paleobiology at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of a 2014 paper that calls commercial fossil collecting the greatest challenge facing paleontology today. For Shimada, there are also practical concerns about studying privately-held fossils. Many of the best academic journals simply won't publish papers written about fossils held in private hands, so even if he could access a privately-held specimen, there's no guarantee he could publish the results that came from studying it. “I have a paleontologist’s perspective," he says. "Fossils are priceless. It’s a completely different way of viewing that same fossil.”

On the other side of this divide are the private fossil hunters who actually excavate these skeletons. For some academic paleontologists even knowing what to call them is difficult. Some, like Shimada, opt for the term “commercial collectors.” Others prefer “commercial paleontologists,” acknowledging that many of the most stunning dinosaurs in museums today were dug up by private teams who some write off as capitalist hucksters with little regard to science.

“There are some people in academia that think that if you're not a degreed paleontologist, you're not qualified to work on this,” says Mike Triebold, a private fossil collector who usually works in the fossil-rich rock formations of the American West. “That’s absolute hogwash. It’s bullshit.”

Triebold, who has more than 30 years of experience and a long list of scientific papers to his name, says that people who baulk at the high prices some fossils go for just don’t realise the amount of work involved in excavation. A typical elephant-sized dinosaur, he says, takes around 15,000 hours to excavate and get ready for display. “Dinosaurs are pricey because they take so much labour to prepare. If you have to spend $50,000 on a dinosaur you pretty damn well better get some good money for it or you’re gonna go broke.”

But to make a living from digging up long-dead dinosaurs, you have to turn fossil finding into a formula. Triebold specialises in fossils from the late Cretaceous period – the period of time about 66 million years ago, just before the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. Fortunately, the American west – particularly Montana, Kansas and the Dakotas – is littered with rock formations that date from this era. For Triebold, and other private collectors like him, the desolate ranches of the western United States are dinosaur country.

“There’s this public myth that dinosaurs are rare,” Triebold says. “Dinosaurs are most certainly not rare – what is rare are the people who are not only capable of recognising them but also have the skills to properly excavate, bring them back and prepare them.”

When Triebold visits a fossil site, like the Hells Creek formation in Montana, he starts by studying the loose rocks at the base of cliffs, searching for a fragment of tooth or bone hidden amongst the scree dislodged by years of gentle erosion. Occasionally, a sliver of fossil at the foot of a cliff hints at the presence of a fossil further up that might be worth excavating. Since these formations are constantly eroding and disgorging their contents, there’s a good chance that returning to a fossil site from years earlier will yield new finds.

Following this careful formula has led Triebold to some spectacular finds. In 1994 he uncovered a Pachycephalosaurus – a bizarre dinosaur with a large boney plate on the top of its skull. His discovery, which is now in Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science, was the first time a Pachycephalosaurus specimen had been found with both a skull and skeleton intact, and the weedy neck of this find cast doubt on the idea that the creature’s boney skull was used to headbutt other dinosaurs. In 2003 he found the first complete skeleton of a Protosphyraena – a swordfish-like creature from the same time as the dinosaurs that Triebold hasn’t yet found a buyer for.

Most of the time, however, Triebold has already sorted a buyer before he even starts on a dig. About 85 per cent of his work comes from museums who commission him to excavate a specific kind of dinosaur and prepare it for display in their collection. Only a small fraction of his finds, between five and ten per cent, go to private collectors. Sometimes, he says, he goes an entire year without selling a single specimen into private hands.

In the US, all of these fossils are excavated from private land – usually vast cattle ranches that can extend for hundreds of miles. Unlike Mongolia and Brazil, where laws restrict all private fossil collection, any fossil found on private land in the US belongs to the landowner. “In this age it’s really hard for people in agriculture to make a living, so it’s nice of them to have another crop,” says Pete Larson, a private fossil collector and president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

In paleontological circles, Larson is something of a living legend. He has personally uncovered 10 T. rex skeletons, more than any other fossil hunter. In 1990 he paid ranch owner Maurice Williams $5,000 to excavate Sue, the most complete T. rex skeleton ever found, from his property in western South Dakota. Two years later, the skeleton was seized by the US government and a court eventually concluded that, since the property the skeleton was found in was held in trust by the United States Department of the Interior, Williams could not sell the rights to his fossil, and so retained its ownership. Eventually, the T. rex was bought by The Field Museum in Chicago, with funds donated by Walt Disney Parks and McDonalds, for $8.36 million (£6.34m) – the highest price ever paid for a fossil at auction.

As with Triebold, Larson’s greatest source of fresh fossils are ranchers. Some he pays a yearly fee to work on their land and others he signs per-find contracts for a fixed portion of the final sale price. Usually, he pays the landowner anything upwards of 12.5 per cent of the fixed price that he agrees beforehand with the museum or individual that commissions him to find a specific fossil.

Larson and Triebold both agree that they wouldn’t sell scientifically significant fossils into private hands. But no one can agree what the definition of scientifically significant is. A near-complete T. rex skeleton like Sue is significant, sure, and it only narrowly escaped falling into private hands. But is a Triceratopsskeleton – one of the most commonly-found complete skeletons – as vital to science? What about Mosasaur teeth that are extracted from Moroccan phosphate mines and shipped to small-time fossil sellers in blocks containing 20,000 teeth at a time?

For Carr, every single fossil is significant, and selling any kind of fossil sets a dangerous precedent that they are trinkets and not important scientific artefacts. “Fossils are nothing but information, and that’s vital information for understanding evolution and biology and everything about a species,” he says. “They're like first edition single print books that ought to be secured in a library so that the knowledge that those books contain will forever be accessible.”

But Paul Barrett at London's Natural History Museum takes a more ambivalent view of the private fossil trade. Historically, private collectors have been an important source of specimens for public museums, although that is becoming slightly less common as acquisition budgets have reduced and museums have started to place more emphasis on capturing the contextual information that goes along with fossils. It doesn't help that high-profile auctions push up the price of fossils, particularly the rare dinosaurs that are of most interest to both collectors and palaeontologists.

Sometimes, however, private sales are a useful way for museums to get their hands on stunning specimens. In 2012, Barrett spotted a cast of a near-complete Stegosaurus at Tucson Gem and Mineral Show – the largest gemstone and fossil trade show in the world – and, eventually, the Museum bought the original skeleton from the private collector.

“We buy them specifically to bring them into the public trust and make them available to people,” he says. Nowadays, most fossils come into museums through a combination of private donations, purchases and targeted research programmes that are usually supported by external grants. “Sometimes private collectors buy fossils specifically to donate, or they may decide after a period that they have had enough enjoyment out of it and want to donate it,” he says.

Writing off the private fossil trade altogether could have serious consequences for people whose livelihoods depends on it. In countries like Morocco, where there is a significant legal fossil trade, many people right on the edge of poverty are involved in sorting through rubble to find fossils, extracting them and preparing them for export. “Then it comes down to a moral judgement about whether the purity of this scientific case outweighs the fact that there are people trying to make a living from these objects,” Barrett says.

But there is a darker side to the private fossil trade. Highly publicised auctions like the one in Paris earlier this month might increase the demand for illegally traded fossils, smuggled out of countries like Mongolia, where laws prevent any fossil from leaving the country. “Once you make this public, you’re making the market bigger,” says Bolortsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist who works to repatriate the fossils of dinosaurs smuggled out of her country. Between 2013 and 2016 she helped to repatriated 32 dinosaur specimens, among them several near-complete skeletons.

“It's not just random Mongolian poachers that do this – this is organised, there's a trail of fossils going to certain countries, in very targeted places,” she says. Often, these illegal fossils end up in unknown private hands but sometimes they make it all the way to auction. In 2012, the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus relative that has only ever been found in Mongolia, Tarbosaurus bataar, came to Bolortsetseg's attention when it was offered for sale at a New York auction house. Despite protestations from the Mongolian government, and a last-ditch effort to scrap the auction, the skeleton was sold for $1 million (£760,000).

But Bolortsetseg had her suspicions about the fossil’s origins. In the auction catalogue it was listed as being found in “Central Asia,” a vague label that avoided mentioning China or Mongolia, two countries were fossil export is illegal. After a legal battle, the skeleton was returned to Mongolia, and the fossil smuggler who removed it in the first place was sentenced to three months in prison and three months of community confinement.

For Bolortsetseg, who is currently working on repatriating another bataar skull, treating fossils like works of art misses the real value of these unique objects. She says that we should think about fossils like any living endangered species, as things that should be protected, not sold to the highest bidder. And, if they’re kept in the right hands, she says, they could end up filling in some of the gaping gaps in our knowledge about the Earth, and the strange animals that spent hundreds of millions of years dominating it. “This is an important part of nature that needs to be protected.”