Why Did Stan Sell for $32 million, or What is a Fossil Worth?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9d/Triceratopsskull.jpg
How much is a fossil, such as this Triceratops skeleton, worth? Why is it worth that much?

Who knew that fossils could be big business? After all, if fossils such as Stan can sell for $32 million, then there is certainly money to be made in the sale of fossils. However, this is not a new revelation. There are a number of paleontologists who can be called commercial paleontologists. They make a living by excavating, cleaning, and selling fossils. The Black Hills Institute, the organization that recently lost Stan, is an example. That is why Stan was so valuable to them: they had made casts out of Stan and sold many (over 60 of them). Surely, this was a significant source of income for them.

There is another group of paleontologists, the academic paleontologists. They also make a living using fossils, but they do not sell fossils. Rather, their focus is on studying fossils, preserving fossils, and teaching about fossils. Typically, academic paleontologists work in colleges, universities, and museums.

Academic and commercial paleontologists have an unsteady relationship. Commercial paleontologists sell fossils and, if the academics can afford them, they can purchase the fossils and keep them. Therein lies the rub, however, since many academic paleontologists and their institutions cannot afford the higher priced fossils, such as Stan. That is the source of the conflict: the commercial paleontologists invest in excavating and preparing fossils, so they need to sell fossils to keep themselves in business. Academics are fine with that, except that things often go for more than they can afford, and the fossils subsequently become purchased by private collectors and lost (as described in the last post).

Understanding all of this, one may wonder, how is the cost of fossils determined? Or, to be more specific, why did Stan sell for $32 million?

The short answer is, someone bid that much. Remember, Stan was sold at an auction. People where trying to outbid each other, and the resulting highest bid was $32 million. Obviously, someone thought that parting with that much money was worth owning a Tyrannosaurus skeleton. The long answer gets a little complicated.

Fossils have always been for sale. If we look at the beginning of the modern science of paleontology, which goes back to the early 1800s, we can learn about Mary Anning, a working woman who gained part of her income by collection fossils, including ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, and selling them. Some of her customers included the leaders of the budding discipline of paleontology, such as William Buckland. Thus, we can see that the sale of fossils has been around for a long time.

However, the moment people began to take note of fossils and their value was probably the debacle over and sale of Sue the Tyrannosaurus. Recall from the last post that Sue sold for $8.36 million ($13.5 million in today’s dollars) in 1997. At the time, that was easily the most expensive fossil ever sold. In case you are wondering what I meant by “debacle,” there was a major lawsuit over Sue. Sue was excavated by the Black Hills Institute beginning in 1990. The skeleton as found on land “belonging” to a rancher. After a verbal agreement to allow the paleontologists to excavate the skeleton, work began. It was only later that it was discovered that the land was held in trust by the US government. The lack of a written, formal agreement to allow the Black Hills Institute excavate the fossil and the confusion over who actually owned the land led to the federal government taking possession of Sue and a subsequent legal battle to determine her ownership and fate. That eventually led to her sale at auction in 1997.

As an aside, while we will be focusing on the money side of things here, many paleontologists learned there lesson from Sue: always, ALWAYS have proper, signed paperwork before excavating a fossil. Know who owns the fossil and make sure that proper permission has been given, or your fossil may also be yanked away from you.

It was a surprise that Sue sold for $8.36 million: that was more than she was expected to go for. That price tag, however, put dollar signs in some people’s eyes. Now, the expectation was that any fossil could be worth a lot of money.

The problem is, there were several factors that likely contributed to Sue’s final price tag. The first is the legal battle itself. The raid by the FBI on the Black Hills Institute to acquire Sue and the subsequent legal battle was a nationwide news story. Likely, her notoriety and high profile in the public’s eye led to her eventual cost. Additionally, she was only the twelfth known Tyrannosaurus (at the time), and was the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton. Plus, everyone loves Tyrannosaurus: it is probably everyone’s favorite dinosaur. Surely, all of these factors contributed to the $8.36 million.

Now, some may question, if academic paleontologists have limited money to purchase skeletons, how did Sue end up in the Chicago Field Museum, an academic institution? Well, that is because the Chicago Field Museum made a deal with two large corporations. These businesses agreed to help pay for Sue and, in return, each of them received a cast of Sue’s skeleton. These two corporations were: Disney and McDonald’s. Disney put its cast in Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World and McDonald’s created a traveling exhibit sponsored by them and featuring their cast of Sue (that was years ago: I am sure that Disney’s cast is still in Animal Kingdom, but I am not sure what has become of McDonald’s cast). Thus, Sue is also a rare example of academics recruiting the help of corporations to reach a common goal.

What about Stan? Stan is certainly famous: what with his 60 casts seen around the world, he is practically the face of Tyrannosaurus. Also, he is a very complete skeleton. While not as complete as Sue, he is easily one of the most complete. As with Sue before, these probably contribute to his cost.

The irony is, while we often look at Sue and Stan as examples of how much dinosaur skeletons can be worth, they are likely exceptions. I know of at least two instances where commercial paleontologists have been burned by overestimating the value of their skeletons. The first is a Triceratops skeleton. This skeleton is in possession of a commercial paleontologist who is trying to sell it. He has had it since at least 2012, and apparently has not found a buyer for it. Right now, it looks like he is just trying to recoup the cost of preparing the skeleton. Apparently, Triceratops skeletons are just note as interesting to people as a good Tyrannosaurus. I once heard a paleontologist say that “teeth sell.” While I partially agree with that, it is my opinion that it is Tyrannosaurus that sells, not merely a dinosaur with sharp teeth.

The second example is the fighting dinosaur pair. This is a pair of dinosaurs, a ceratopsian and a tyrannosaur (note that I am not saying Tyrannosaurus, I am saying tyrannosaur: it is clearly something like Tyrannosaurus but it has not been identified yet) preserved in the same block of rock. In spite of the name, I do not think it has actually been confirmed that they are “locked in combat.” There simply has not been any research on the fossils, which is also the reason why the exact identity of the dinosaurs are unknown. Unfortunately, it does not appear that anyone will be studying the fighting dinosaurs any time soon, since the paleontologist who has it is looking to sell it and has not yet found a buyer willing to pay his price. As long as the skeletons remain in limbo (that is, until they are sold), they are basically “lost” to the academic paleontologists.

I guess the point is, we really cannot tell how much a fossil will go for. Popularity of the dinosaur, completeness of the skeleton, and fame of the dinosaur genus all are contributing factors, and how they come together to create the cost of a skeleton can be difficult to predict. This can hurt both academics and commercial paleontologists. Academics can see the cost of valuable specimens spiral out of control, well beyond their price range. On the other hand, commercial paleontologists can end up with white elephants: fossils that are not quite as valuable as they thought them to be which they just cannot manage to sell. In the case of Stan, years of promoting him by the Black Hills Institute probably contributed to his enormous price tag.

Thoughts from Steven