“They are thieves of time”: Paleontologists speak out against the booming market for dinosaur skeletons

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“Gourmet” is one way to describe it Dinosaur Bone Market In recent years, art collectors, celebrities and others have joined the increasingly expensive hunt for prehistoric artifacts. But not everyone believes that these objects should be sold.

Following Sotheby’s sale of 77 million year old Gorgosaurus skeleton for $6.1 million last month, some pundits have begun to take issue with the trend, claiming it’s doing science a great disservice.

“Dinosaurs are becoming a commodity traded on the world market, a luxury item affordable only to the wealthiest, little different from objets d’art or classic cars or old whiskey bottles,” says Steve Brusatte, an American paleontologist researcher for the University of Edinburgh works said the Daily Mail.

“They are little more than toys for the rich,” he continued. “If an oligarch buys a dinosaur skeleton and puts it in the foyer of one of his mansions, it’s practically lost to science. way, a ghost.”

The Gorgosaurus skeleton, sold at Sotheby’s New York, was the first of its kind to hit the auction block and only one of 20 ever discovered. With so few existing examples, the impact of loss to private hands is not overstated, especially when it comes to data collection. Scientists need numerous samples to make informed statements about specific characteristics that distinguish one species from another.

Another paleontologist, Thomas Carr of Carthage College in Wisconsin, compared dinosaur auctions to “the last copy of a book thrown on the fire.”

He added: “When the skeleton was bought by a private collector, it no longer exists for scientists.”

A close-up of a Gorgosaurus skeleton is seen during a press preview at Sotheby’s on July 5, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Both Carr and Brusatte are committed to ensuring that exhumed dinosaur remains are passed on to museums and other educational institutions open to the scientific community. But Sotheby’s senior vice president Cassandra Hatton says just because a prehistoric relic ends up in private hands doesn’t mean it’s lost forever to researchers.

“These specimens have survived for millions of years and will continue to exist for millions of years; While there is a chance they may not be available for study immediately after sale, they will be available at some point in the future,” she said in a statement to Artnet News.

Hatton further suggested that not only is there “no evidence for it [auctions] poses a problem for scientists’, indeed, ‘private collectors and research organizations can benefit from each other in ways that are essential for the long-term preservation of fossil specimens and for raising awareness and educating the public about dinosaurs’.

“Private collectors,” she explained, “play a critical role in distributing objects to museum collections, often donating or loaning items for permanent or long-term viewing and research. Our experience so far has been that most collectors loan or donate to institutions newer specimens that warrant further academic study.”

“Most collectors are passionate about the study and preservation of fossils, and the joy of sharing these incredible items is common in the collecting community,” added Hatton.

Christie's sold a near-complete skeleton of a T-Rex named Stan for $28 million ($31.8 million after fees) in its November 2020 evening sale.  Image courtesy of Christie's.

Christie’s sold a near-complete skeleton of a T-Rex named Stan for $28 million ($31.8 million after fees) in its November 2020 evening sale. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Of course, Sotheby’s isn’t the only auction house selling dinosaur bones. In May, Christie’s sold a Velociraptor skeleton for $12.4 million, while the company auctioned off a T. rex skeleton last fall for a record $31.8 million. The auction house Drouot in Paris sold a Triceratops for $7.4 million in October 2021 and an Allosaurus for $1.9 million in April 2018.

“Money drives these auctions to sell dinosaur bones,” Carr said Daily Mail. “Auction [houses] are a crucial link in the chain, but each link is equally hellish. This chain includes collection companies in the commercial sector [the fossils] to sell, then the auctions and the people with the money to buy the dinosaurs.”

“As scientists, we are helplessly at the mercy of this trinity,” said the paleontologist. “They are thieves of time.”

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