Psst ... Wanna Buy a T. Rex? Paleontologists Fret about Dinosaur Sales

Article excerpt

In the space of 9 minutes on Oct. 4, onlookers at Sotheby's auction house

In New York watched as a pile of old bones turned into a treasure. The largely complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex, known around the world as Sue, sold for $8.36 million to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago--an amount that shocked many of the auction participants and sent waves of concern rippling through the world of vertebrate paleontology.

Researchers who study dinosaurs voice mixed feelings about the sale. Almost universally, paleontologists express relief that the exceptional fossil will end up in a highly regarded institution, where it will be available for scientific study and public display. At the same time, many foresee chilling consequences from the auction of the T. rex, particularly the high price it garnered.

"Everything changed on that day," says J. Keith Rigby Jr., a paleontologist at the University of Notre Dame (Ind.). "This sale may be the single most damaging action in the history of vertebrate paleontology."

"I'm very sad about it," comments Peter Dodson, a paleontologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "As far as paleontology goes, I think it's a very serious setback."

The greatest concerns center on how the sale will affect the burgeoning commercial fossil market. Will the hope of instant millions cause landowners to bar academic paleontologists from their land and deal instead only with commercial collectors? Will fossil hunters, with visions of T. rex dancing in their heads, be motivated to steal valuable specimens from public lands? A recent case in Montana suggests the answer might be yes.

Finally, many paleontologists wonder whether museums should be fostering the commercial market by bidding against each other--potentially driving the price of fossils up to a level that harms academic research.

The bidding war over Sue is only the latest conflict to swirl around this relic from the Cretaceous period. During its lifetime, the T. rex suffered several injuries at the jaws of other tyrannosaurs and eventually succumbed to a skull-piercing bite.

More than 65 million years later, a fossil dealer named Peter Larson and his team discovered the skeleton on a ranch near Faith, S.D., in August 1990. Larson excavated the fossil and paid the relatively small sum of $5,000 to the landowner, a Sioux named Maurice Williams. Larson then took the specimen back to his business, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, S.D., where he planned to build a museum around it (SN: 11/11/95).

By law, though, Williams could not sell the fossil without the permission of the Department of the Interior because the federal government held the land in trust for Williams. Federal marshals and FBI agents seized the fossil, and Williams ultimately gained ownership of it. Because of the trust arrangement, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was charged with obtaining the "highest and best" use of the fossil for Williams. He and the bureau decided to sell the dinosaur in a public auction at Sotheby's. Williams pocketed $7.6 million from the auction, all taxfree.

Larson and Williams have accused each other of dishonesty, and observers have questioned both their accounts of the original deal.

Larson was tried and convicted of illegally collecting other fossils and violating customs rules (SN: 4/6/96). He finished serving a 2-year sentence last month.

Before the auction, paleontologists feared that the fossil would go to a private individual, thereby making it unavailable for study and display. They were particularly anxious because it is the most complete T. rex specimen known, retaining more than 90 percent of its bones. In a century of searching, scientists have discovered only 21 T. rex specimens, with just 4 exceeding 60 percent completeness.

"We felt it was critically important to get it into a public institution," says John J. …