July 30, 2014

Backtrack to… fossils on the auction block

Posted by Laura Guertin

Every once in awhile, I come across something (a tweet, an email, etc.) that reminds me of an article I read or conference presentation I heard that I want to go back and revisit.  Recently, my memory was triggered by this press release from AGI:

In 2006, a fossil collector and his crew discovered a rare fossil on private land in Montana’s Hell Creek Formation: the bones of two fully articulated dinosaurs that appeared to have died together, locked in battle. The fossil duo — a small, pony-sized carnivorous tyrannosaurid and a slightly larger herbivorous ceratopsian, both now preserved in plaster — became known as the “Montana Dueling Dinosaurs.” Last November, the fossils were put on the block at Bonhams auction house in New York City — but they did not sell. Had the set fetched the nearly $9 million it was expected to, it would have set a record for a fossil sale. For now, the Dueling Dinosaurs remain locked in an unidentified warehouse somewhere in the United States — along with any scientific information the unique specimens may reveal. — clip from AGI Press Release “EARTH: Dueling Dinosaurs Hit the Auction Block” (June 12, 2014)

The T. rex named Sue was at the center of one of the most famous fossil auctions, with The Field Museum (and scientists and the general public) as the winners.

The T. rex named Sue was at the center of one of the most famous fossil auctions, with The Field Museum (and scientists and the general public) as the winners.

A presentation I gave at 2012 GSA Annual Meeting, titled Introducing students to the controversies surrounding the ownership and sale of fossils, touched upon this very subject – it is unfortunately not a new subject or a subject that is going away anytime soon.  Maybe you recall the entire Tyrannosaurs rex skeleton “Mr. Z-Rex” that went for sale on eBay in July 1999 and Lycos/Millionaire.com in January 2000?  More recently, the Tarbosaurus bataar was auctioned in the United States in 2012 for $1.05 million.

And then, there is the classic fossil auction of the Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue.  She has quite the story, documented in the NOVA Curse of T. rex episode, in next month’s release of Dinosaur 13, and on The Field Museum’s website, where Sue now makes her home.  Sue, now known as FMNH PR 2081 but still @SUEtheTrex on Twitter, fetched $8.36 million at auction in October 1997.  Her purchase was funded through the collective efforts of The Field Museum, Disney, McDonald’s, and private donors.

Certainly, there are more fossils beyond dinosaurs that are for sale.  Paleontologists struggle with the thought of losing such valuable scientific specimens to the highest bidder and private collections.  I have found this to be an interesting topic for students to struggle with during in-class discussions and out-of-class assignments.  Who gets to own a fossil?  What if a fossil is found on public land vs. private property?  Should scientists get “first dibs” on studying specimens before they go for sale?  Should we even be selling fossils?  How can we put a financial price on fossils?  What are the laws that protect fossils, and are they adequate?  I have found that student perspectives are wide-ranging, especially among my non-traditional students that own their own property and consider finding a dinosaur bone in their own backyard.  The science, politics, ethics, and personal feelings makes this topic interdisciplinary yet a challenge upon which to arrive at a consensus – and therefore, an ideal topic to share with our students.



Additional sources for exploration

Rosen, R. (2014, June 9). Dueling dinosaurs hit the auction block. EARTH Magazine, June 2014 issue. Available online: http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/dueling-dinosaurs-hit-auction-block.

Schmitt, J. (n.d.) Ethics and Paleontology: Dinosaur Wars. SERC Teaching GeoEthics Across the Geoscience Curriculum – Case Study. Available online: http://serc.carleton.edu/geoethics/activities/83983.html.

Lutz, T., & L. Srogi (2010). A Values Framework for Students to Develop Thoughtful Attitudes about Citizenship and Stewardship. Journal of Geoscience Education: January 2010, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 14-20. (PDF online)