On Tuesday evening, Christie's auction house had an unusually large item up for sale: a 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, nicknamed "Stan," from South Dakota. Stan is a well-preserved specimen, with over 188 bones that provide striking evidence of a violent life lived 67 million years ago. Its estimated value going into the auction was around $8 million. It fetched a staggering $31.8 million, shattering the previous record of $8.36 million as the most expensive fossil ever sold at auction.
Private collectors operate under no such restrictions. They could sell parts of Stan to other collectors and split up the skeleton, or store it in a way that could lead to Stan being damaged.
At a glance, this prehistoric monster doesn't seem to be much more than another quirky toy for a wealthy collector, in the same vein as the banana duct-taped to a wall in an art museum that sold for $120,000 a few days before it was eaten by a performance artist. (Thankfully, the new owners were able to track down a replacement banana.)
At this point the winning bidder is anonymous. But if the winning bid for Stan the T. rex came not from a museum but a private collector, then science is the loser — and high-profile auctions like these make that the most likely outcome, driving up the cost and pricing out museums. That’s why we need legislation protecting rare specimens like Stan so they can be used for research and enjoyed by the public.
Museums, whether public or private nonprofits, are bound by many factors to ensure the fossils and other objects in their collections are properly cared for. But private collectors operate under no such restrictions. They could sell parts of Stan to other collectors and split up the skeleton, or store it in a way that could lead to Stan being damaged, or grind up Stan for "medicinal" soup, or even let their dogs chew on Stan if they so desired.
Museums are also obliged to allow researchers to examine the objects in their collections, but not private collectors. They could charge scientists to examine Stan, or only give certain ones access. And if Stan’s buyer remains anonymous, it may disappear from view entirely. Given these issues, many paleontologists don’t study fossils in private collections on ethical grounds and several scientific journals refuse to publish research done on these specimens.
Of course, Stan is just one Tyrannosaurus skeleton. There are other T. rex skeletons in accredited museums. Does it really matter if this one ends up in private hands?
Yes, it does. For starters, Stan is very well preserved and can shed light on our knowledge of T. rexes. More generally, paleontologists need to be able to study multiple specimens of the same species to properly understand it. Without that, we lack important knowledge of where a species lived, how it changed as it grew up, and what was on its dinner plate.
Having access to multiple specimens helps us avoid mistaking a trait unique to an individual for a trait unique to its species. Imagine if in the future, the only recorded evidence of humans for scientists to rely on were pictures of Danny DeVito. Humanity would be seen as a species of short, balding, bespectacled comedians.
There’s also the issue of reproducibility: the scientific tenet that a hypothesis is valid only if it can be replicated, which protects against mistakes, confirmation bias and even outright fraud. If one person conducted a study on Stan (there have been dozens) but other paleontologists lack access to the skeleton, the ability to properly reproduce the research is limited.
It's also possible that a trait assumed to be individual variation is actually an important feature of an entire species — but researchers need many specimens to make this determination. When the sauropod dinosaur Shunosaurus was found with an odd growth at the end of its tail, scientists at first assumed it was a swollen growth from an injury. But when others were found with the same growth in the same place, scientists realized that Shunosauruses actually had tail clubs.
This isn't to say that every single fossil needs to be in a public repository. Like living animals, there are some fossils that are rare and require extra levels of protection, and others that are common. I myself have several complete skeletons of Knightia, a species of extinct fish. But Knightia is possibly the most common vertebrate fossil in the world; the number of Tyrannosaurus skeletons is estimated to be less than 100, with slightly less than half in private hands. I do not have a Tyrannosaurus in my garage.
But wealthy private collectors just might. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio have taken an interest in fossils, which has led to many being far too expensive for museums. Sue, another well-preserved Tyrannosaurus, only ended up being sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago through financial backing from McDonald's, Disney and other donors. And given Stan’s eight-digit price tag, which puts it at over 10 percent of the total value of the Field Museum’s property, it’s very unlikely that it was purchased by a museum.
Stan may not even stay in the United States. A long-necked Diplodocus from Wyoming was set up for "permanent" display in a mall in the United Arab Emirates in 2014 (and then was put up for sale in 2019; it's unclear what's happened to it since). What is possibly a new species of predatory theropod, also from Wyoming, was purchased by a French buyer. Determining whether it’s actually part of a new species, of course, has now been made harder.
How do fossils end up at auction houses in the first place? In many countries, governments consider fossils to be of cultural significance and prohibit private ownership. In the United States, federal law protects fossils found on publicly owned lands, protecting all vertebrate fossils but allowing the limited noncommercial amateur collection of invertebrate and plant fossils on some public lands. Fossils found on private land, however, are the sole possession of the landowner.
Stan was found on private land in South Dakota and is being sold by the Black Hills Institute (a private company) to raise the funds for a legal settlement between the institute and one of its shareholders.
In western states, fossils on private land are usually found on ranches, where an unsure financial future leaves some ranchers interested in the cash boost from selling fossils to private collectors. In eastern states, fossils are often found in quarries, whose owners may consider them simply in the way and drill right through them.
The likes of Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio have taken an interest in fossils, which has led to many being far too expensive for museums.
Legislation is needed to help preserve fossils for scientific study. Tax credits could be offered to ranchers and quarry owners that allow paleontologists to collect fossils on their land for museums. Museums could be given a right of first refusal for fossils going to market. And owners of rare American fossils could be required to provide a certain level of care, allow researchers access and keep them within the country.
Stan is on display by Christie’s through Oct. 21. Hopefully that won’t be the last time the public can see it.