Bones of contention: should dinosaur skeletons be auctioned?

The sale of a T-Rex specimen at a Zurich auction illustrates a conflict between commercial interests and public access to natural heritage, says Lara Sciscio, researcher at the Swiss museum JURASSICA.

This content was published on April 13, 2023
Lara Sciscio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Geosciences, University of Freiburg, and at the JURASSICA Museum 

Tyrannosaurus rex: a name we all know. This formidable animal ruled life in the Late Cretaceous period and continues to dominate our imaginations in the 21st century. But can you put a price tag on its fossils? And should they be a commodity? 

On April 18, “TRX-293 Trinity”, a hybrid Tyrannosaurus rex made up of 50% fossilised bone and 50% cast replicas, will be auctioned for an estimated CHF5-8 million ($5.4-$8.8 million) in Zurich. Trinity is a chimaera, meaning it is made up of the skeletal remains of more than one T. rex specimens which were found in two different places in the United States.  

It is the first time such a sale is being made in Europe and only the third T. rex ever to go to auction. Included in the bidding item is the hybrid skeleton, GPS coordinates for the specimens, a quarry map of one specimen, field photos, and the rights to make reproductions. This sale comes off the back of the controversial sale of the T. rex “Stan” for $31.8 million to a buyer who, until recently, remained anonymous. Another deal for the T. rex “Shen” was abandoned due to questions surrounding the authenticity of the bone density and copyright infringement.  

The sale of dinosaur fossils recovered from private land is legal in the US. These sales generate public interest and put a spotlight on valuable palaeontological studies.  

Why it matters 

Should the public be concerned that fossils are being sold at eye-watering prices, even when it is conducted legally and legitimately? Should we care?  

The answer, quite simply, is yes. 

These specimens form part of our collective natural palaeoheritage, a shared heritage focused primarily on fossil data. 

Disregarding for a moment the ethical ramifications, the sale of fossils can lead to diminishing scientific or educational value of important specimens if they are not publicly displayed or studied after private sale. It can also lead to fossil looting, fossil modification, forgeries or collection solely for financial gains by unscrupulous or naïve fossil collectors. Collectors who do not know how to properly care for the specimen may remove fossils from their unique sedimentary context, losing a wealth of valuable information about its ancient environment and ecosystem. 

These sales highlight the increasing economic disparity between a person or private company and that of a state-funded museum or institute. And this not only regionally but internationally.  

The international palaeontological community continues to raise concerns over the sale of fossils, particularly in situations in which buyers are anonymous or when there are no tangible ties to long-term curation for public benefit in the purchasing agreement. 

A longstanding tradition 

Selling fossils is nothing new. Fossils have been sold and purchased since the dawn of the field of palaeontology. The interest in owning a piece of natural history and the study of it are intertwined in a long and complex relationship with links to commercial and amateur palaeontologists as well as scientists.  

Many key discoveries were only made thanks to the tireless, and often unrecogonized, work of palaeontologists, collectors and dealers like the British pioneer Mary Anning or South African dinosaur enthusiasts James Rhalane, Themba Jikajika and Dumangwe Thyobeka. All of them are dedicated individuals who worked determinedly to unearth, curate, and preserve specimens, bringing them to light for study. 

In recent years, the sale of fossil specimens into private collections at prices that exceed the purchasing power of many museums and institutions has substantially increased. Several of these specimens may be a scientific rarity. Often, once they are sold, they are no longer available for further research. 

Global palaeontological wealth 

Although the transparent sale and purchase of specimens is better than the alternative of driving it underground, we need more informed legislation in fossil collection and sale conditions.  

Open dialogue among members of the public, researchers, collectors and dealers is necessary for engaging all stakeholders in this complex topic. Global palaeontological wealth is invaluable.  

While some may think the scientific value comes into conflict with commercial interests, private gain should not be at the expense of conservation of valuable, precious resources. Finding a balance between the commercial value of a fossil and its scientific and cultural significance is fundamental to the continued preservation of global palaeoheritage for the enjoyment and inspiration of future generations. 

The views expressed in this article are solely and exclusively those of the author/authors and do not necessarily coincide with those of SWI

Translation by Luigi Jorio

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