A growing trend in collecting is happening amongst private buyers across the biggest auction houses in the world and it’s dinosaur relics. This has paleontologists worried that these fine specimens, once sold to a private collector, will be lost to science, never to be seen again.
Some experts put this dinosaur craze down to pop culture and the popularity of the movie franchise, Jurassic Park. In 1997, with the release of the second movie of the series, The Lost World, a T-Rex skeleton, affectionately known as Sue, came to auction in the US and sold for $8.4 million. But the T-Rex didn’t go to a private buyer. This purchase was an acquisition for the paleontologists and the world at large, as Sue resides in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois.
Stan the Tyrannosaurus Rex
Fast forward 13 years and the hammer price and interest in these relics has skyrocketed. At Christie’s seasonal 20th Century Evening Sale in New York in October 2020, auctioneers watched an intense 20-minute bidding war between two buyers on the phone, eager to get their hands on a 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex from the Cretaceous period. No one knew who the interested parties were fighting it out over the telephone lines.
Standing at 13 feet high and measuring 40 feet long, the T-Rex named Stan was an unusual find among the Impressionist and Modern art of the Christie’s sale. Sharing space with famous works of art by artists such as Picasso, Pollock and Monet worth more than $300 million in total, Stan made for a formidable presence. People were there just to see the dinosaur, not the priceless art on the walls.
The bidding war for Stan began with an opening bid of $3 million and rapidly edged its way up to a final hammer price of $31.8 million, the most anyone has ever paid for a dinosaur fossil.
At first it was feared that a private buyer had purchased Stan the 31.8-million-dollar T-Rex and would never be seen again. But the rare fossil will soon be on display at the new Natural History Museum in Abu Dhabi, where it will become one of the main attractions.
Maximus the T-Rex Skull
Over the next few years, more and more dinosaur fossils have to come to auction selling for huge amounts. Recently at Sotheby’s, a dinosaur head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex sold for $6,069,500. The dinosaur skull, affectionately called Maximus, is an almost perfect specimen and one of a kind.
What once seemed like a strange relic amongst all the jewels, watches, handbags, wine and cars for sale at Sotheby’s New York Luxury Week, has now become more accepted. But these bones don’t always end up in the safe hands of the world’s museums. As more and more private collectors become interested in relics and fossils, the ticket price will skyrocket, edging out the paleontologists and museums of the world as potential buyers.
Dinosaurs As Luxury Collectables
Dinosaur fossils are fast becoming the next hot luxury item in collecting among private collectors. A T-rex skeleton called Shen, with an estimated price of $25 million, almost made it to auction at Christie’s in 2022. Fossil sales have shown up before at Sotheby’s, when a Gorgosaurus was auctioned off for $6.1 million. Like Maximus, the Shen fossil is a rare specimen, one of only 20 to be discovered in the world.
Dinosaurs Popping Up At Art Fairs
But is an auction house and luxury sale the appropriate venue to sell dinosaur bones? In 2019, the ArtAncient Gallery in Chelsea, London that specializes in exceptional works spanning from the formation of the Solar System through to the Roman period, sold the first fossil at the UK art fair, Frieze London. It was a 50-million-year-old crocodile that sold for $1.2m to a private collector in Europe.
The David Aaron Gallery in Mayfair that specializes in antiquities and ancient classical Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Near Eastern and early Islamic works of art, sold two dinosaur fossils at two different London, UK art fairs – at Frieze London and Masterpiece 2022. One was a 154-million-year-old Camptosaurus that sold for more than $1.2 million to a private buyer.
The other dinosaur relic was a 68-million-year-old Triceratops skull, dating from the late Cretaceous, which sold for an undisclosed amount (more than $1 million) to a private collector.
Professor Paul Barrett, senior dinosaur specialist at London’s Natural History Museum, told the Guardian:
"It used to be specialist collectors who bought fossils but dinosaurs have been picked up by collectors who would normally be more interested in art. Dinosaurs are rare and have aesthetic value. They can also reflect their owner’s personality in a way that a Rembrandt can’t. The T-rex is a fearsome predator and a collector might relate to that. Also, in the same way that collectors diversified into fine wines and coins, fossils are a way of investing money."
Dinosaurs - A Multi-Million Dollar Business
Dinosaur fossil hunting is big business and many amateurs have tried to cash in on this craze for the past. Countries such as China and Mongolia are seeing more poachers and smugglers of dinosaur bones. In these countries, fossils and relics belong to the state. But in other countries, including the US where Sue and Stan were found, and the UK, any fossils found on private land belong to the property owners, who can sell them for the highest asking price.
Dinosaurs sold to private collectors will be housed in a private estate somewhere far away from the public eye and lost to science forever. With millions of dollars at stake, this dinosaur craze is a phenomenon that isn't going to let up anytime soon.
For the rest of us who can’t afford the million-dollar price tag for a whole dinosaur skeleton, there are other fossils and dinosaur relics you can buy online for a fair price. These usually range in the form of dinosaur teeth, prehistoric claws and vertebra, limbs and jaw bones. But unlike the million-dollar skeletons, they won’t break the bank. So it’s not just millionaires who can enjoy these incredible relics. It’s not just a purchase, it’s an investment.