The Most Expensive Fossil Ever

https://palaeo-electronica.org/content/images/commentary/benefit_l.jpg
Stan as he appeared in the museum at the Black Hills Institute. This photograph was taken from a commentary, Benefits of Fossil Sales, by Peter Larson and Donna Russell, which can be found at https://palaeo-electronica.org/content/2014/739-commentary-benefits-of-fossil-sales.

I am a little behind on this, but I wanted to talk a little bit about it.

About twenty days ago, news began to circulate about the sell of Stan at Christie’s. Stan is a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil and Christie’s is an auction house. There are numerous reasons this sale was notable, and I want to get into a few of them, but the immediate thing that catches one’s attention is the selling price: Stan went for $32 million. To put that in context, Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex on display in the Chicago Field Museum, was the previous holder of the “most expensive fossil” title, and she “only” went for $8.36 million (Sue was sold in 1997, so her value in today’s dollars would be $13.5 million, which still pales in comparison to Stan).i

Stan had been around for a while. He was first put on display in 1995 (he was actually first found in 1987, but there were delays and time needed to excavate and clean the fossils). Since then, he has been the centerpiece, and main money-maker, for the Black Hills Institute. I say “money-maker” because the Black Hills Institute is a commercial paleontology business. By “commercial paleontology,” I simply mean that the Black Hills Institute was not funded by an outside source. They are not a museum or a college supported by a city, state, or the federal government. Instead, they make their money by selling fossils and casts of fossils (think of a cast as a copy: it is made of resin, but it has the same size, shape, and parts as the original fossil). In the case of the Black Hills Institute, they kept Stan for themselves and put it on display in their own museum, but they sold casts of Stan, lots of them. There are about 60 locations worldwide that have casts, whole or in part, of Stan.ii I know of at least two locations that have, not a full skeleton but just the skull, of Stan: the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita, Kansas,iii and the Museum of Osteology in Norman, Oklahoma. Odds are, if you have seen a cast of a Tyrannosaurus skull or skeleton, it was Stan.

However, there was apparently a dispute between the shareholders at the Black Hills Institute, and one of them decided to leave. The two main players here are Pete and Neal Larson. They are brothers, and if their names sound familiar, it is because they, and the Black Hills Institute, where the ones who were forced to sell Sue the Tyrannosaurus back in 1997. Now, in an ironic twist of fate, they are selling another Tyrannosaurus skeleton, complete with a court order to do so. However, this time, the reason for the court order was because Neal decided to leave, and in 2015, he filed suit to liquidate the Institute’s assets. That eventually led to the court order that caused Stan to go up on the auctioning block.iv

The response by paleontologists to the sale of Stan has been one of horror. Some have said that Stan is now “lost to science.”v Why are paleontologists concerned about Stan’s sale? Because, in part, we do not know who purchased Stan. For all we know, someone who fancies fossils bought Stan, will transport him off to a private display room, and only he and his close friends will be able to see him. In such a case, paleontologists will simply have no access to Stan (at least the original fossils: as already mentioned, there are casts of Stan all of the place and, yes, some research can be done with the casts).

Even if the new owner of Stan were to make him available to the public, for instance, by building a mini-museum around the display of Stan, that would still not make paleontologists happy. Why? Many museums hold their artifacts and fossils in trust for the public. These museums see themselves as stewards of these artifacts and it is their job to care for the artifacts to ensure that they are available to the public. This “availability to the public” not only means putting artifacts and fossils on display, but also ensuring that things not on display can be accessed by researchers when they are needed. There are even organizations, such as the American Alliance of Museums, that accredit museums and give them a “stamp of approval” for adequately being good stewards of their artifacts. A private individual displaying a multi-million dollar fossil to the public for fun would surely not meet these standards. As such, paleontologists have no guarantee that Stan will be kept safely, will be treated well, or even will be kept available to the public. Paleontologists do not want to work with fossils that may, at a moment’s notice, be yanked from display or from access at a moment’s notice. To give an example of how serious paleontologists take the availability of fossils, there are journals that will not publish articles that feature fossils that are not held in public trust by museums. Even if Stan could still be seen by the public, he could be effectively gone as far as the scientific community is concerned.

There are people who may wish that there is legislation that would require all discovered fossils to be excavated and kept by accredited museums. That way, we can guarantee that all known fossils will be available to all researchers everywhere. Unfortunately, we cannot do that without dictating to private individuals how they can treat their own property. If the government can mandate that any fossil belongs in a museum, then when a landowner finds a fossil, he would be obligated to tell an accredited museum and have them come excavate it and take it for themselves. His property effectively becomes public domain by dictate. I do believe that private individuals who have fossils on their property should be free to do with them what they want. Whether that is selling the fossil for money or donating it to a museum, it becomes the individual’s choice, not a directive. By the by, selling a fossil does not necessarily mean that it will disappear and never be seen again. Sue the Tyrannosaurus is a notable example of a fossil being purchased by an accredited institution (in this case, the Chicago Field Museumvi) where it has been extensively studied and is still being kept for researchers.

There is more that can be said about the purchase of Stan, and several tangential issues. I plan on getting into this over the next several weeks, because it leads into an interesting discussion of science and politics (not necessarily government politics, but rather the politics of governing the process of science and the access of fossils).

Thoughts from Steven

iLaura Geggel (2020) “Stan the T. rex just became the most expensive fossil ever sold” livescience.com, retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/stan-tyrnanosaurus-rex-dinosaur-auction.html on October 27, 2020

iiBlack Hills Institute (2020) “Black Hills Institute Buys Out Partner” Press Release, retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wZ67r9mWQNZKM7mleGqmlsaXsBS9xyOu/view on October 27, 2020

iiiJust for clarification, the main Tyrannosaurus skeleton at the Museum of World Treasures is an actual fossil: it is not Stan. However, there is a cast of Stan’s skull in the front lobby of the Museum.

ivBlack Hills Institute (2020) “Black Hills Institute Buys Out Partner” Press Release, retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wZ67r9mWQNZKM7mleGqmlsaXsBS9xyOu/view on October 27, 2020

vMichael Greshko (2020) “’Stan’ the T. rex just sold for $31.8 million-and scientists are furious” nationalgeographic.com, retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/10/stan-tyrannosaurus-rex-sold-at-auction-paleontologists-are-furious/ on October 27, 2020

viI may go into this in more detail at a later date, but technically, the Chicago Field Museum purchased Sue with financial help from Disney and McDonald’s. Yes, big corporations got in on the purchase of Sue. Nevertheless, the agreement during the purchase what that the Field Museum would keep the fossil, which has made paleontologists very happy.