A robust skeleton of a Gorgosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex relative that roamed the Earth about 80 million years ago, sold at a Sotheby’s auction Thursday for $6.1 million.
The sale, which fetched that price with fees, was the latest in a series of auctions for dinosaur fossils that have infuriated some scientists who worry about the commercialization of the earth’s evolutionary history. They are also concerned that, with so many fossils falling into private hands, their research will suffer from having fewer samples available to study.
Living in the late Cretaceous era, about 10 million years before the T. rex, the Gorgosaurus was smaller but most likely faster than the tyrant lizard king, with serrated teeth for slicing the flesh of its prey with ease, hawklike eyesight and a tendency to hunt in packs.
The Gorgosaurus was a remarkable animal, several paleontologists said. With striking horns in front of its eyes and a smaller set behind its eyes, “they would have looked pretty impressive,” Thomas Carr, a vertebrate paleontologist at Carthage College, said in an interview. Like T. rex, they had short arms with two fingers.
As formidable as the Gorgosaurus was — its name means “fierce” or “terrifying” lizard — it would have been no match in a hypothetical fight with the T. rex, said Lawrence Witmer, a paleontologist at Ohio University who was once a contributor to the TV show “Jurassic Fight Club.” Ten million years of evolution honed the T. rex into a more efficient and powerful killing machine.
The 9-foot-tall, 22-foot-long skeleton sold Thursday was found in 2018 in the Judith River Formation, a fossil-rich area in Montana about 45 miles from the Canadian border. The auction house, which did not disclose the name of the seller or the buyer, had estimated it would sell for between $5 million and $8 million. The high bidder also won the right to name the dinosaur’s skeleton.
“In my career, I have had the privilege of handling and selling many exceptional and unique objects,” Cassandra Hatton, a senior vice president for Sotheby’s, said in a statement before the auction. “But few have the capacity to inspire wonder and capture imaginations like this unbelievable Gorgosaurus skeleton.”
Paleontologists were not so awestruck. But they acknowledge that everything about the sale appears legal. In the United States, fossils found on private land can be sold for profit. If the Gorgosaurus had been found just north of the border, in Alberta, it would have belonged to the public, paleontologists said.
“I’m totally disgusted, distressed and disappointed because of the far-reaching damage the loss of these specimens will have for science,” said Carr, who studies tyrannosauroids including T. rex and Gorgosaurus. “This is a disaster.”
Carr used T. rex as an example of the scarcity of dinosaur fossils. He said there are about 50 T. rex specimens — ranging from an entire skeleton to a single tooth — in public trusts like museums and universities that he can access for his research, while there are about the same number that he cannot use because they are in private hands. Gorgosauruses are even scarcer, he said, so each fossil not in a public trust is a blow to better understanding the animals.
Carr added, “The value of dinosaurs isn’t the price someone will pay. It’s the information they contain.”
But people will pay. A lot.
Several dinosaur skeletons have sold in recent years at private auctions. One T. rex skeleton nicknamed Stan sold in October 2020 for nearly $32 million with fees after a 20-minute bidding war. The remains of a Deinonychus antirrhopus, which inspired the Velociraptor in “Jurassic Park,” sold in May for $12.4 million. Several years ago, actor Nicolas Cage returned the skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar to Mongolia, which he had acquired at an auction, after being contacted by the Department of Homeland Security. The agency said the skull had been stolen from the Gobi Desert.
All known skeletons of Gorgosauruses are housed in institutional collections, making this the first one available for private ownership, Sotheby’s said in a statement. A spokesperson for the auction house said the skeleton had been consigned by the same people who unearthed it.
While the circumstances of this find are unclear, private excavators say that the ancient bones they unearth would not be found by the nonprofit sector. The time and costs of an excavation can be prohibitive for museums and university researchers. And there is the chance that these skeletons may one day find their way to a public trust, as opposed to the possibility that they will erode underground and be lost forever to science.
Hatton, from Sotheby’s, said in an email after the auction that institutions also take part in fossil auctions, noting the sale in 1997 of Sue, a T. rex skeleton, for $8.4 million to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. She said there is a role for the public and private sector in their preservation and that “great museums of the world all began as private collections.”
“These specimens have survived for millions of years and will be around for millions more,” she said. “While there is a chance they may not be available for study immediately following the sale, they surely will be at some point in the future.”
Gregory Erickson, a paleobiologist at Florida State University, said that there is some truth to the excavators’ claims. Even so, he said, such private auctions have contributed to the commercialization of dinosaur fossils and made his research more difficult because ranchers and landowners these days are less likely to let nonprofit researchers work on their property than they were decades ago.
He said this shift has occurred for several other reasons as well, including “Jurassic Park” instilling a love of dinosaurs in the broader public, the rise of auction sites like eBay allowing people to easily sell items like dinosaur teeth, and high-profile cases of celebrities paying for fossils.
“It basically sent a message to society but also to those ranchers that, hey, these things are worth a whole lot of money,” he said.