The dinosaur bone market is booming; it also has growing pains

Fossils are a multimillion-dollar business, bringing legal disputes, nondisclosure agreements and trademarks to the world of paleontology

By Julia Jacobs and Zachary Small

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Published: Sat 26 Nov 2022, 11:49 PM

Last updated: Sat 26 Nov 2022, 11:58 PM

Crouching over a snow-dusted quarry that moonlights as a fossil hunting ground, Peter Larson pointed to a weathered 4-inch slab peeking out from a blanket of white. A commonplace rock to the untrained eye, but an obvious dinosaur bone to Larson.

“That’s 145 million years old, plus or minus,” said Larson, a 70-year-old fossil expert and dealer, as he walked through an excavation site that had already yielded seven dinosaurs.

Hulett is fertile ground for the current dinosaur-bone hunting craze. Larson has been digging here for more than 20 years, beginning not long after Sue, a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that he helped excavate, sold at auction for $8.4 million in 1997, ushering in a boom in the market for old bones. Local landowners started to wonder if they could farm a new crop: dinosaur skeletons.

Among them were Elaine and Leslie Waugh, who raised sheep on their Wyoming property, not far from the Devils Tower National Monument, but who began to wonder what they should do about all the dinosaur fossils they kept finding in the dirt.

“We just figured that we should do something with them bones,” said Leslie Waugh, 93. They called Larson, whose company’s excavations here — including a Camarasaurus, a Barosaurus and a Brachiosaurus — required years of painstaking digging.

Fossil hunting has become a multimillion-dollar business, much to the chagrin of academic paleontologists who worry that specimens of scientific interest are being sold off to the highest bidders.

Sue’s record price was beaten by Stan, another T. rex that Larson’s company excavated, which Christie’s sold at auction in 2020 for $31.8 million. This year a Deinonychus (the inspiration for the Velociraptors depicted in the film Jurassic Park) sold for $12.4 million. Next month, a T. rex skull is estimated to fetch between $15 million and $20 million. Buyers include financiers, Hollywood stars, tech industry leaders and a crop of new or developing natural history museum facilities in China and the Middle East.

This month Christie’s had hoped for another blockbuster dinosaur auction, expecting a T. rex skeleton named Shen to fetch between $15 million and $25 million. But the sale in Hong Kong was called off this week after Larson and others raised questions about the specimen.

Larson, who seems to be involved in most dinosaur-world dramas these days, was examining a photograph of Shen when he realised that it seemed familiar: Its skull looked a lot like Stan’s.

Larson’s company, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, retains intellectual property rights to Stan, selling polyurethane casts of the specimen for $120,000 each. After a lawyer for the Black Hills Institute raised the issue, Christie’s clarified its online marketing materials to note that Shen had been supplemented with replicas of Stan’s bones. On Sunday, Christie’s withdrew Shen from the sale altogether.

Larson is either a famed fossil expert or an infamous one, depending on how one feels about the booming market for bones. He has been a central character in the introduction of dinosaurs to the auction market, and his nearly 50-year career has been marked by court battles over bones, an 18-month stint in federal prison, a messy legal fight with his brother over their fossil company, and now a spat with an auction house.

Things were simpler at the beginning of his career, Larson said, when universities, museums and a smaller group of private collectors were the only ones who cared about buying pieces of natural history.

It was not until 1997, with the sale of Sue, that dinosaurs started to be viewed as potential centerpieces of auctions.

But for Larson, putting Sue on the auction block was not part of the plan.

A T. rex named Sue

The trouble had started in 1992, when Larson stepped out of the shower to find his fossil business in Hill City, South Dakota, blocked off with yellow tape and swarmed by FBI agents. They had a search warrant demanding that the institute surrender Sue, known as the largest T. rex specimen ever found at the time.

The skeleton had been discovered two years earlier by Sue Hendrickson, then a volunteer excavator, who had stumbled upon bones sticking out from a cliffside on the Cheyenne River Reservation. As the Black Hills team — including Larson and his brother Neal Larson — finished the excavation of Sue, it gave the landowner, Maurice Williams, a cheque for $5,000.

But the US government contended that Sue was its property because the land where Sue was found was held in trust by the government. Williams also asserted that there had never been any deal for the fossil company to buy Sue: He disputed that the $5,000 was for the fossil, saying he had thought it was for access to the land.

Peter Larson’s company sued the government to get Sue back, but after an appeals court ruled against the institute, Williams was ultimately allowed to put the skeleton up for auction in a sale brokered by Sotheby’s. The winning bidder was the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which had financial backing from Disney and McDonald’s. The sale changed the field.

Seeking to crack down on the commercial industry, the federal government charged Larson and his colleagues with a deluge of fossil-related offenses that were unrelated to the excavation of Sue. In 1995 Larson was convicted of two felony customs violations involving a failure to declare money related to fossil deals. He served 18 months of a two-year sentence; while in prison he gave lessons on fossils as part of a lecture series.

In 2000, Sue was unveiled at the Field Museum, and its 600-pound skull became the face of the growing public fascination with dinosaurs.

Stan shatters records

If Larson had his way, Stan, the company’s next big find after Sue, would have stayed on display forever at the company’s museum in Hill City, a former gold mining settlement near Mount Rushmore that bustles each summer with tourists and bikers drawn to the area for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Stan was discovered by an amateur paleontologist named Stan Sacrison. In 1992 the Black Hills Institute began the excavation in northwestern South Dakota.

After the Black Hills Institute lost Sue, Stan became the pride of the company. The fossil toured Japan like a rock star. Casts of the skeleton were purchased by museums around the world. And because the specimen had so many original bones — 190 — Stan was ripe for scientific study.

But as with Sue, the sale of Stan was the resolution of a long legal battle.

In 2015, Neal Larson filed a lawsuit against his brother Peter and other leaders at the Black Hills Institute, claiming that he had been unlawfully fired from the company’s board. A judge sided with him. Peter Larson said the company’s lawyer at the time had the idea to offer Stan to Neal Larson to buy out his share of the company. At the time, no one realised just how valuable the fossil would prove.

The 40-foot-long fossil went on display behind floor-to-ceiling windows at Christie’s in Manhattan in 2020. Stan sold that year for $31.8 million — a record for a fossil. National Geographic reported this year that the specimen would be featured in a developing natural history museum in the UAE.

Scientists feel priced out

Many scientists are aghast at the growing commercial market, and increasingly anxious that scientifically important specimens will disappear into private mansions. Paleontologists are also concerned that the market could encourage illegal digging, and that US landowners — who, by law, generally own the fossils found on their land — would favour commercial fossil hunters over academic researchers.

“Ranchers who used to let you go and collect specimens are now wondering why they should let you have it for free,” said Jingmai O’Connor, a Field Museum paleontologist, “when a commercial collector would dig up the bones and split the profit.”

Fossil diggers and dealers in the commercial sphere counter that if not for them, these specimens on private land would be left to erode further, never to be found.

The United States is an outlier legally. Other dinosaur-rich nations, including Mongolia and Canada, have laws making fossils the property of the government.

Peter Larson sees it as a good thing that the broader public is assigning this kind of value to fossils, which he has loved since he was 4 years old.

“You should be happy that fossils are being appreciated like works of art,” Larson said. (Minutes before Stan had hit the auction block, a Mark Rothko painting sold for $31.3 million, a half-million less than the fossil.)

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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