When she touched stone beneath the sand, Susan Hendrickson didn’t know at first that she had found a bone from the largest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.
The giant carnivore died 67 million years ago in what is now South Dakota, in the desolate northern plains of the United States. Ms. Hendrickson, an American paleontologist, raised the fossilized bones to the surface on August 12, 1990.
“Sue” – named for its finder – was the biggest T. rex fossil ever unearthed. It also turned out to be the richest known dinosaur find. The Field Museum in Chicago paid $8.4 million (€7.5 million) for the mighty meat-eater in 1997.
“Sue” was the beginning of a new age in the vertebrate fossil market. It caused a price hike and increased demand from private collectors – although the collecting mania has little to do with science.
Since auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s started selling dinosaurs, the same laws apply for bones of T. rex or triceratops as for paintings by Van Gogh or Picasso.
Nowadays museums can only rarely afford to buy originals. Most fossils disappear into the private collections of wealthy American, Arab or Japanese collectors. Dino mania has also infected celebrities. In 2007, Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage paid $276,000 for a T. rex skull.
Yet smaller fossils can be bought for far less. A swimming crab from the Jurassic period is on sale at the German online shop fossilien.de for €40.
Their pterosaur is not quite so cheap. “For a rare and well-prepared pterosaur, you would have to pay between €50,000 and €100,000,” said geologist Peter Rüdel, who has run the webshop for 11 years.
“It is like the antiques market. The rarer and more aesthetically pleasing an item, the higher its price.”
Experts don’t know how much revenue fossils generate worldwide, but they say the market is growing.
“Demand in the upper price range is increasing,” said Mr. Rüdel. “For some fossils you now pay two or three times what you did 10 years ago.”
Martin Görlich, a dentist and part-time fossil dealer from Berg in Bavaria, also said demand is growing. “I have clients who buy fossils as an investment,” he said.
Whether a fossil is valuable or not usually has little to do with its scientific value.
“For collectors, the object has to be decorative – big and in good condition,” said Mr. Görlich.
The history of a fossil can also mean a higher value. Fossils resembling the primeval bird archaeopteryx, for example, are worth five-figure sums, because they were the “missing link” for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“It is like the antiques market,” said Mr. Görlich. “The rarer and more aesthetically pleasing an item, the higher its price.”
More than money is needed for a decent dinosaur collection. You also have to have a lot of space. “No collectors store bones in cases,” said Mr. Görlich. “Most of them put their items on display at home.”
For a full-size dinosaur skeleton, a small hall might be needed. Fossils don’t need special air-conditioning, however. A pterosaur can be kept at room temperature in a living room.
Collectors should also know that no dinosaur skeleton is ever absolutely complete. Even with “Sue,” researchers had to reproduce some bones artificially. The quality of these reproductions and restorations is another factor influencing price.
Martin Sander, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn, has been observing the dinosaur boom for years. “For scientists, the private fossil market is a double-edged sword,” he said.
Mr. Sander pointed to the example of China, where the rise of capitalism created a gold-rush atmosphere. “It led to countless fossils being discovered,” he said, “but many of the items just go into private collections.”
Even fossils offered by big auction houses are usually unobtainable for the scientific world. When dinosaur fossils are auctioned off, museums can’t compete with private bidders. That “Sue” is even accessible for the public today is mainly thanks to private donors who supported the Field Museum.
The dinosaur market comes with dangers for private collectors. Ever since prices for prehistoric lizards started to rise, the business in counterfeit bones also boomed. Copies from plastic or plaster can quickly be made, and they look like real bones to the layman. Even X-rays don’t expose all counterfeits.
Collectors should also be aware that the trade in fossils is often a gray area.
“Nearly all countries prohibit exports of rare fossils,” said the paleontologist, Mr. Sander.
For instance, he said there shouldn’t be any fossils sold from China at all. Still, prohibited skeletons keep turning up at auctions.
In Germany, fossil finds are a matter left up to individual states. In Bavaria, private collectors can keep items they excavate, but all other states have their own treasure trove. Anyone finding a fossil in south Germany’s Baden-Württemberg, for example, has to show the item to a museum and may have to leave it there in return for a finder’s fee.
The legal situation is different in the United States, where most dinosaurs are found. Whatever is found on private property belongs to the finder or landowner. Anything found on public land belongs to the state. But the example of the T. rex named “Sue” shows that even this regulation can lead to conflict, resulting in a long legal dispute between the finders and landowner.
Collectors should also pay close attention to origin and ownership when buying dinosaur fossils. If there is no documentation of the find or proof of where it came from, then it’s best left alone.
Andreas Macho writes for Handelsblatt. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.