A 76-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton can fetch up to $8 million at auction. Paleontologists say high-profile sales make fossils less accessible to them.

A Gorgosaurus dinosaur skeleton displayed at Sotheby’s New York, on July 5, 2022.AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson

  • A rare dinosaur skeleton is going up for auction on July 28 in New York City, Sotheby’s said.

  • A number of dinosaur skeletons have sold for millions at high-profile auctions in recent years.

  • Paleontologists say that people who own fossils, rather than public institutions, could hurt research.

The complete fossilized skeleton of a Gorgosaurus dinosaur that roamed 76 million years ago will be auctioned on July 28, auction house Sotheby’s announced on Tuesday.

At nearly 10 feet tall and 22 feet long, the well-preserved specimen is a smaller cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex. It was discovered in the Judith River formation near Havre, Montana, in 2018. The auction house’s pre-sale estimate is that it will sell for $5 million to $8 million, according to The Associated Press.

Experts say it’s hard to confirm whether multimillion-dollar auctions of dinosaur skeletons have become more common, but there have been a number of high-profile sales in recent years.

A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named “Stan” sold for a record $31.8 million in 2020. Even celebrities like Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio have participated in dinosaur fossil auctions.

But for paleontologists, this high-profile auction is part of a worrying trend, in which rare fossils could be lost to science.

Experts in the field say fossils appropriated by private collectors can prevent them from being seen by the public and studied by researchers.

“This auction is disgusting,” said Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College. Carr added that the fossil is one of the few Gorgosaurus skeletons that have been found in the US, as most of the remains have been discovered in Canada.

“In my career, I have had the privilege of handling and selling many rare and unique objects, but few have the ability to inspire awe and capture the imagination like this incredible Gorgosaurus skeleton,” Cassandra Hatton, global director of science and popular culture at Sotheby’s. he told The Associated Press. Sotheby’s did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

An employee at Sotheby's in New York demonstrates the size of a Gorgosaurus dinosaur skeleton

An employee at Sotheby’s in New York demonstrates the size of a Gorgosaurus dinosaur skeleton, on July 5, 2022.AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson

High-profile auctions, like the upcoming Gorgosaurus sale, fuel the perception that the value of dinosaur fossils is monetary, rather than scientific, Carr added.

“The value of dinosaur fossils is the information they contain in their bones. Sample size is everything in science, and auctioning off a skeleton to a private buyer is equivalent to losing a mountain of data for a scientist,” he said. .

If a fossil is privately owned, paleontologists like Carr fear owners could deny public access to the specimen or resell it, making it difficult for researchers to conduct long-term analyses, verify previous research and ask new scientific questions.

Countries like Canada, Mongolia, Brazil and China have laws that protect significant fossils wherever they are found, according to Victoria Arbour, curator of paleontology at Canada’s Royal BC Museum. But in the United States, permits to collect dinosaur bones are only required if dinosaur bones are found on federal land. It’s rare for fossils to be legally auctioned off in other countries, Arbor told Insider.

Dinosaur experts say they worry that selling fossils to the highest bidder is inflating prices. According to Arbor, most museums work directly with commercial dealers and pay lower prices. Auction prices “are usually much higher than any museum can really afford,” Arbor said, adding, “It doesn’t cost $5 million to collect a Gorgosaurus. It doesn’t cost zero dollars, but the profit margins are really high.” in these auctioned specimens”.

Another concern is that expensive fossil auctions may incentivize people to steal bones, rather than leaving them for paleontologists to study.

In May, National Park Service officials said rare reptile footprint fossils dating back at least 200 million years were stolen from Capitol Reef National Park in Utah between August 2017 and August 2018. P. David Polly , a paleontologist at Indiana University, pointed to the university’s own fossil hoard, used for research. “The more commercial value attached to fossils, the more likely someone is going to want to break in and steal something,” Polly told Insider.

Not all fossils that are auctioned become inaccessible after the sale. One of the first high-profile fossils sold at auction was a dinosaur named “Sue,” the most complete T. rex ever found, which sold to Chicago’s Field Museum for more than $8.3 million in 1997.

Visitors admire Sue at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago on November 24, 2021. One of the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found, Sue was purchased at auction by the Field Museum in 1997 for $8.36 millions of dollars.

Visitors admire Sue, one of the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found, on November 24, 2021. Sue was purchased at auction by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1997 for $8.36 million. of dollars.Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

If a private individual buys a fossil, the public and researchers have no right to know its whereabouts, according to Arbor. “We don’t always know where these fossils end up, that’s how it works,” Arbor told Insider. “It’s really unfortunate, because then these really interesting specimens could just disappear from scientific accessibility.”

When “Stan” was sold to an anonymous buyer in 2020, the dinosaur skeleton disappeared from the public eye. It resurfaced nearly two years later, when National Geographic first reported that it was headed to a future natural history museum in Abu Dhabi. The identity of the anonymous buyer remains unknown, although the fossil’s final home in a museum potentially eases concerns that it will become inaccessible to scientists.

Although some fossils purchased at auction are donated to museums and research institutions, paleontologists like Polly insist there is no guarantee of that outcome.

“Even the collector with the best intentions, once it has died, for example, has very little control over what happens to that fossil afterward,” Polly said, adding, “Long-term availability is always questionable when it comes to private hands.” .”

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