With rare fossils being sold on eBay, and Hollywood stars bidding for skulls, there’s a case for curbing what is becoming a collectors’ market for the mega-rich
The news that an ultra-rare fossil of an infant Tyrannosaurus rex has been placed on eBay for $2.95m (£2.26m) has caused an uproar among palaeontologists, who have protested that such things “belong in a museum”. Where is Indiana Jones when you need him?
The skeleton, estimated to be 68m years old, was found in 2013 on private land in Montana and became the property of Alan Detrich, the professional fossil hunter who found it. Before Detrich decided to cash in on the discovery, he had lent it to the Kansas University Natural History Museum, but withdrew it before scientists could study it.
“The US needs a major overhaul of the laws and regulations surrounding the excavation of scientifically important fossils,” says the science writer and fossil fanatic Riley Black (formerly known as Brian Switek). “Finds on private land are still the wild west … which has allowed an untold number of fossils of scientific importance to be sold into private hands where no one can learn anything from them.”
With Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage in the market for fossils and dino bones, collecting them is becoming a trend – it has been reported the pair have been engaged in a bidding war over a $276,000 dinosaur skull. According to an Artnet report: “There is a growing appetite – and expanding market – for fossils of the long-dead beasts”, with art fairs and auction houses such as Sotheby’s putting them on sale.
“T rex is the magic word,” says Rupert van der Werff, a director with Summers Place Auctions, with juvenile dinosaurs such as Detrich’s much rarer than adults. “We sold a juvenile Allosaurus, which is much earlier than the T rex,” he adds – it went for around £300,000.
It is doubtful that the mega rich are purchasing these rare finds to study their ecology, but their house guests will certainly be impressed.
So have dinosaur fossils become a new art market? “I think nature is undoubtedly the greatest artist and we sell a lot of decorative material,” says Van der Werff. “There’s nothing that could fit better, particularly in today’s modern interiors, than something natural in an entirely artificial environment.”
As beautiful as nature is, for Black, these aren’t just ancient bones. “This is history that belongs to everyone. We need to rethink what fossils mean to us and acknowledge that some things just shouldn’t be for sale.”