Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.
T. REX TRADERS: THE LOST WORLD OF FOSSIL EXPORTS
Is Stan the New Sue?
On October 6, a much-anticipated collector’s item is scheduled to be auctioned off by Christie’s of New York. The star of this sale will be Stan, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found.
“T. rex is a brand name in a way that no other dinosaur is,” says James Hyslop, head of Christie’s Science & Natural History department. “It sits very naturally against a Picasso, a Jeff Koons or an Andy Warhol.”
It reportedly took three years (and 30,000 hours of work) to excavate Stan from South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation. Now, this unique specimen could fetch a record price at auction. The most expensive T. rex sale on record is Sue, the world’s largest and best preserved T. rex skeleton, sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $8.36 million to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1997.
Paleontologist Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says: “The day Sue got auctioned is the day fossils became money.” There are no public records available to verify how many dinosaurs hit the auction block. But one expert estimates it’s about three to five per year. Christie’s says that it is not uncommon to have bidders from more than 50 countries participate in auctions of dinosaur fossils.
Fossils as Commodities
The increased number of private dinosaur collectors is raising concerns within the scientific community, who worry that rare fossils in private collections won’t be available for future scientific study. The debate boils down to this: are dinosaur bones a commodity? Or a common good?
In the early 20th century, universities and museums often commissioned fossil digs. But now these institutions rely on free access to fossil sites to do their work, and landowners are opting instead to work with commercial dealers that typically pay them a portion of their profits.
Dinosaurs excavated by commercial dealers usually head to the private market. And it is increasingly rare that a museum or educational institution can afford such an expensive purchase. (The Field Museum received sponsorship from Disney and McDonald’s to finance Sue back in 1997.) Dealers argue that collectors often donate important fossils to museums. But other ethical concerns remain, as private buyers may unknowingly contribute to the black market fossil trade.
Dinosaur Gold Rush
The Tyrannosaurus rex has been capturing the imaginations of people ever since the first one was unearthed in the western U.S. in the early 1900s. But our collective fascination with dinosaurs dates back at least 2,000 years, when Chinese writings described what were thought to be dragon bones. In the 17th century, an English scientist theorized that a dinosaur thigh bone was from a human giant.
Today’s dinosaur collection trend is in part fueled by the generation that grew up watching the The Land Before Time (1988) and Jurassic Park (1993) movies. The fossil market boomed in the late 1980s when dealers from Japan started buying up prized fossils for their collections, driving up prices beyond the reach of most educational institutions.
Now dinosaur collecting is a global phenomenon, and not limited to the world’s elite auction houses, either. On eBay, about 100 Mososaur – a marine dinosaur – fossils are being sold online each month in the UK. Overall, eBay reported a 22 percent increase in fossil sales during 2018. And with an average of 50 new dinosaur species being discovered each year, there is always room for the collection to grow.
The Dinosaur Economy
The most dinosaur fossils – and the widest variety – have been found in the deserts and badlands of the western United States, China, Mongolia, and Argentina. To find a particular fossil, you must first find the right age rocks. For example, a sedimentary rock layer called the Morrison formation extending from the southwest U.S. up to Canada is a treasure trove for fossils from the Jurassic Period, when giants like the Stegosaurus and Allosaurus roamed North America.
Here in the U.S, the largest quantity of fossils have been unearthed in California, Wyoming and Montana. Seven states – Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin – have no dinosaur fossils, because they were mostly below sea level during the dinosaur era and don’t have the right kind of sediment to preserve fossils.
The states that do have a ready supply of fossils are fostering a dinosaur economy that gives enthusiasts another way to get a piece of dinosaur history aside from owning a fossil of their own. In Montana, 14 paleontology museums have banded together to form the Montana Dinosaur Trail Association to encourage tourists to collect stamps on their “Prehistoric Passports” at important fossil sites across the state. There’s even an entire National Park Service site dedicated to fossils. Dinosaur National Monument, located on the Utah/Colorado border, welcomed 304,468 visitors in 2018, providing $20.3 million in economic activity and supporting 222 jobs.
Who Owns the Past?
Fossils are protected on federally owned lands such as National Parks by the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009. Even with laws now on the books to protect fossils on public lands, theft remains a concern. Back in the 1930s, one National Monument that started out as a trove of paleontological treasures actually lost its protected status after visitors stole all of its fossils. As recently as 2017, fossils were reported stolen from Death Valley National Park.
Meanwhile, fossils discovered on privately owned lands are private property. Anybody can dig for fossils there with the permission of the landowner. But even then, custody battles over dinosaur remains are not uncommon. Earlier this year, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case that dinosaur fossils are not classified as minerals after an ongoing legal battle over the ownership of dinosaur bones found on a ranch where the surface and mineral rights are owned by different people.
International Fossil Trade Laws
International rules and regulations impacting fossil collection, sales and export are murky at best – and are often ignored. For example, ever since 1924, Mongolia has declared all fossils discovered within the country’s borders to be property of the state. Private collections are banned and no fossils are allowed to be shipped out of the country without special permission.
Most major museums in Europe and the United States have strict rules about acquiring looted fossils. Institutions like the American Museum of Natural History have sponsored expeditions to Mongolia with government approval to temporarily remove fossils for study. But most of the dinosaur specimens from Mongolia (and China, which also enacted a law requiring government permission to export fossils) that routinely show up for sale in the U.S. and around the world, have been transported here illegally.
Some of them are eventually reclaimed by their home country’s government. Actor Nicolas Cage had to return a $70 million skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar – an Asian relative of the T. rex – he bought at auction in 2012. (Cage had beat out Leonardo DiCaprio with the winning bid of $276,000 at an auction in California to take home the skull.) The China Daily newspaper reported that over a period of three years, China reclaimed more than 5,000 fossil specimens from foreign countries, including Australia, the United States, Canada and Italy. Legal action has also been taken against auction houses to block the sale of stolen Mongolian fossils.
The Problem of Fake Fossils
And then, there is the problem of fake fossils. Perhaps the most famous hoax in the paleontology community was the so-called “Piltdown Chicken,” a reference to the faked early hominid remains reportedly found in Piltdown, England in 1912. National Geographic Magazine announced the discovery of the Archaeoraptor liaoningensis in China in 1999, celebrated as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. But it was later discovered that the fossil had been forged, one of the most embarrassing blunders in the magazine’s history.
Today, the problem of fake fossils from China has only grown, exacerbated by the fact that most of the region’s fossils are dug up by poor farmers who are desperate to sell the bones for a profit, despite the practice being illegal. Finding a high-quality fossil can sell for tens of thousands of dollars – the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Fossils can be faked by mix and matching individual bones from different specimens of the same species (creating a “composite”) or combining different parts of different species to create something that looks like a new animal – as was the case of the Piltdown Chicken. Forgery can also take the form of carving missing pieces of fossils from stone.
In some cases, fossils are completely manufactured from scratch on an industrial scale – one researcher described seeing what he thought was an Archaeopteryx specimen that had actually been made out of ground-up bones glued back together. Morocco is the source of mass-produced fake trilobites that often show up in U.S. gem and fossil shows. Purchasing a fake fossil is an easy mistake for collectors to make. Private collections are rarely opened up to the scientific community for verification of authenticity.
Not All Fossils Are Created Equal
As James Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey says, “Not all fossils are created equal. Some are worth scientific study, but many are not.”
While many kinds of fossils are abundant, others are unique. Stan – the T. rex up for sale on October 6 – is one of those rare breeds. Around 50 T. rex skeletons have been found since 1902, with near-complete skeletons like Stan few and far between.
The debate over preserving dinosaur fossils for the common good will undoubtedly continue. One option might be to form new partnerships between commercial dealers and academics, where the museum keeps the originals for study and private collectors can purchase a high-quality cast of the fossil for display.
While it is likely Stan could end up in the hands of a private bidder, the skeleton will be on display at Christie’s at the Rockefeller Center until October 21. And dozens of Stan replicas have already been sold to museums around the world – so you might still have a chance to meet this “King of the Tyrant Lizards” face to face.