Explained: Why do people want to pay millions of dollars for dinosaur bones?

In India, palaeontologists fear that the country’s rich fossil heritage is under threat in the absence of stringent laws and preservation efforts.

In 2020, the year in which auction houses were forced to innovate and replace physical sales with virtual ones, an unusual new record was made. An exhibit at a Christie’s auction fetched $31.8 million — and it wasn’t a piece of high-value artwork; rather, the well-preserved skeleton of a dinosaur.

The proceeds from the sale of Stan, a nearly 40-foot Tyrannosaurus rex that lived in the late cretaceous period, between 100 million and 66 million years ago, far exceeded the high estimate of $8 million, and smashed the previous record for a dinosaur fossil at a Sotheby’s auction — $8.4 million in 1997 — several times over.

Who wants to buy dinosaur fossils and why, and why are many experts deeply concerned about this trend?

Do dinosaur fossils frequently go under the hammer?

In 2020, a week after the record-breaking auction of Stan the T. rex at Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale in New York on October 6, the Parisian auction house Binoche et Giquello sold a rare skeleton of a 10-metre-long Allosaurus — a large carnivorous dinosaur that lived in the late Jurassic period, 155 million to 145 million years ago — for €3 million (about $3.7 million).

Earlier in June, a 70 per cent intact 150 million-year-old fossil of a yet unnamed dinosaur, dug up in Wyoming, United States, between 2013 and 2015, was sold to a private collector for $2.36 million.

How did Stan the T. rex come into the auction circuit?

Discovered in 1987 by an amateur palaeontologist named Stan Sacrison, the fossil, which stands 13 feet high and is 40 feet long, had been at the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. The skeleton of the dinosaur, which would perhaps have weighed nearly 8 tonnes when it was alive, is considered to be one of the finest specimens of the T. rex, and several of its high-quality casts are in museums the world over.

It has been reported that the fossil came into the market as a result of a dispute. In 2015, Neal Larson, a shareholder in the Black Hills Institute, a family-owned business, sued the company after being dismissed, following which a court ruled that Stan had to be sold to pay Larson for his stake in the institute.

Why are palaeontologists concerned about the sale?

Palaeontologists have raised concerns that the commercial sale of dinosaur fossils and escalating prices would encourage people to sell well-preserved fossils in the open market rather than leaving them for palaeontologists to study. They also fear that most of the good fossils will probably enter private collections, as universities and museums may not be able to match the high prices they offer.

Earlier this year, the US-based Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, a body of palaeontologists, students, artists and advocates committed to the preservation of vertebrate remains, wrote to Christie’s, asking them to limit bidders for Stan to public research institutions.

By what laws are fossil sales governed?

In the US, fossil bones found on federal land are public property, and can be collected only by researchers with permits. These go to public trust and repositories, including accredited museums. Fossils discovered on private land, however, can be bought and sold. In Canada, Mongolia, China, and Argentina, fossils can’t be exported, even though cases of black marketing have come to light.

In India, too, palaeontologists fear that the country’s rich fossil heritage is under threat in the absence of stringent laws and preservation efforts.

How popular are dinosaur fossils?

The fact that Christie’s auctioned Stan in a sale of contemporary art rather than a natural history auction is being seen as an indicator of the collector base of the fossils. While Hollywood actors, including Nicolas Cage, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, are known to buy dinosaur fossils, there is also a broad collector base in countries such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

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