Good Bones

Jurassic Collectors Sink Teeth into Fossils

A dino named Sue. Source: Maritius Images
A dino named Sue.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As the fossil trade becomes big business, many priceless finds will never be seen in public.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Field Museum in Chicago paid $8.4 million for the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nicknamed “Sue.”
    • Wealthy collectors are treating fossils like antiques rather than cherishing them for their scientific value.
    • Not all bones are expensive. A swimming crab from the Jurassic period can be bought online for €40.
  • Audio

    Audio

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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.

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