Sunday, February 1, 2015


Like smoke, does the price tag hang around after real museums purchase dinosaurs? With apologies to the late Amy Winehouse.

Naturalis T. rex
Although the SVP ethics does condone the purchase of fossils into the public trust, it is still most dispiriting for me to know colleagues who are engaged in that activity. Nothing dampens my morale more that to hear them blithely discuss the “going market rate” for, say, a T. rex or a Triceratops. How should museums treat that "market", I wonder?
The same people tell me that I represent the “hard line” on the sale of dinosaur fossils. Although we both lament the sale of fossils to private individuals, we in academe find ourselves on opposite sides of the principle of protecting fossils for Science and education.
My fossil purchasing colleagues rationalize their actions by saying that it is better than a given dinosaur fossil landing in private hands; in the end, they say, the fossil is where it belongs despite how it got there. That's just the way it is. The alternative is the oblivion of private ownership where data is lost to science indefinitely, so purchases made by legitimate museums is the lesser of two evils.
Not so fast.
It is with ambivalence I receive the news about the recent purchase of an adult T. rex by the Naturalis Museum (Netherlands) for $5 million euros: I’m glad the specimen is headed for a real museum, but the price tag sticks like a thorn through the eye. Should I be concerned? The concern my fossil-buying colleagues have is that T. rex fossils are “overpriced” and drive up the “market value” of dinosaur fossils in general. Good grief.
The information on the exchange for the specimen is pretty slim, and one source (CIHAN, 2014), provides the backbone of the story:
a) The specimen was found on private land in Montana in May 2013.
b) The specimen includes skull and skeleton of an adult, which is approximately 12 meters long. It is missing the feet, left leg, and arms; it was found in sandstone and the bones are not distorted.
c) Preparation of the specimen, and mounting on a metal armature for display is being done by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research (BHIGR) Inc.
d) The Naturalis Museum collected the specimen, almost certainly with assistance from BHIGR Inc.
e) “As its excavator Naturalis had the first right for purchase” (emphasis added).
d) The Naturalis had to pay $5 million euros, or $6.1 million USD for the specimen, presumably to the landowner.
e) A crowd funding campaign brought in $230,000.00 euros, and the rest “came from companies, individuals, funds, the municipality of Leiden and Naturalis”. A large part of the funds were raised through kickstarter.
f) The specimen will go on display in mid 2016.
g) The Naturalis Museum says it will publish a bunch of research on the specimen.
Should I be concerned? Regardless of the negotiations between landowner and museum, Naturalis has sent the message to everyone with a dinosaur skeleton on their land that museums will pay just about anything for the fossil and will go to extraordinary lengths to raise the money to buy it. With behavior like that I’m not convinced that legitimate natural history museums aren’t less of a problem as the private hoarders; together they keep the “market” alive and kicking because they’ll pay top dollar. For some perspective, a million dollars could easily fund a decade of a large museum's field program.
My fossil-buying friends would say that it isn’t their fault – the precedent was set by the auction of Sue to the Field Museum for about $8 million USD. Ergo, we’re stuck. From my point of view, it is our responsibility as scientists to treat the price tag of Sue as an anomalously high outlier that no one (in academe at least) has since taken seriously, and no Science respecting museum will ever pay that much again.
Wouldn’t Science be better served if the scientist holding the check book just said “no” to an marked up price tag?! Instead, a museum could, say, offer landowners a percentage of the admission tickets and the merchandizing that stems from the fossil. Certainly there must be alternatives to just paying out astronomical amounts of money that gives the extortion-level “going rate” for dinosaurs, and the “market” itself, no end in sight.
So what happens when a museum doesn’t cave in and a sale flops?  Then the fossils are gone and Science keeps the high road, which of course has a steep cost in terms of the indefinite loss of the specimen. Over time, people with fossils for sale will find that dinosaurs aren't the winning lottery tickets they had thought them to be (assuming that private hoarders wise up to this as well). There is the remote hope that at some point in the future the dinosaur will change hands, or the private hoarder will change heart, and the fossil will be positioned for donation to a museum.
The alternative is for museums to follow the Naturalis example and pay the exorbitant cost and give a clear message to all that the value of the "market" stands head and shoulders above the value of Science.
T. rex list of shame, expanded and updated.
I have added six additional T. rex specimens (in red text) to the T. rex List of Shame that are documented in Larson (2008); that list was up to date as of August 2006. For the present time, I have not included specimens that are housed in what are essentially nonaccredited private collections and privately owned, but nonprofit museums. In their relatively high public profile such places occupy a gray area (perhaps dark gray) between outright private collections on the one hand, and legitimate (i.e., accredited) and long established museums on the other.
Regardless, the 14 specimens in this list represent a substantial and devastating loss to science in that it includes a growth series, from juvenile to adult. Were these specimens in real museums, the sample size of each primary growth stage (juvenile, subadult, young adult, senescent adult) would be increased significantly and we’d have a better sense of the range of variation in each stage.

Unfortunately, I expect this list to increase in number as the years progress unless the culture tips away from commerce and toward Science and education.
1. Barnum: partial skull and postcranial skeleton; found in 1996; collected from Wyoming; sold at auction for over $90,000.00 USD to investors from South Dakota in May 2004.
2. Ollie: incomplete skull and skeleton; found in 1998; collected from Montana; owned by Great Plains Paleontology (Madison, WI).
3. Rex-C: partial skull and skeleton; found in 1999; collected from South Dakota.
4. Monty: partial skull and skeleton; found in 2000; collected from Wyoming; owned by Babiarz Institute of Paleontological Studies, Mesa (AZ).
5. Otto: partial postcranial skeleton; found in 2001; collected from Montana; owned by Great Plains Paleontology (Madison, WI).
6. Wayne: partial postcranial skeleton; found in 2004; collected from North Dakota; privately owned.
7. Cupcake: subadult skull and jaws; almost certainly collected from Montana; owned by The Amazing Traveling Dinosaur Show, British Columbia; on display in Victoria, BC in December, 2014.
8. King Kong: adult skull and skeleton; collected from Montana; privately owned by an individual person; a project of The Amazing Traveling Dinosaur Show; was on public display at the Mineralientage Munchen, at Munich Trade Fair Center Oct 24-25 2014.
9. Tinker: subadult skull and skeleton; collected in South Dakota in 1998; privately owned; presently on display in an art gallery in Dubai; for sale for $10 million; found associated with the adult specimen Regina.
10. Regina: adult; found associated with Tinker; the pair is for sale between $12 and $14 million.
11 & 12. Russell: composite skeleton of two adults; offered for sale at the Bonham’s auction in November, 2013; on display at a 2013 Gem and Mineral show (Denver or Tucson).
13. Dueling tyrannosaur: subadult skull and skeleton; offered for sale at the Bonham’s auction in November, 2013; associated with a ceratopsian; owned by CK Productions.
References cited
CIHAN. Dec. 30, 2014. Feature: Night watch, tulips and T. rex in the Netherlands.
Larson, N. 2008. One hundred years of Tyrannosaurus rex: the skeletons; pp. 1-55 in
P. Larson, and K. Carpenter (eds.) Tyrannosaurus rex, the Tyrant King. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.