Fossil of fatal dinosaur combat to be sold at auction

A pair of exceptional dinosaur fossils discovered on private land in Montana in 2006 will be going up for auction at Bonhams in New York on November 19th, and scientists aren’t too thrilled about it. The pre-sale estimate is $7 million to $9 million, an exorbitant sum for an institution, so the fossils and all the unique information they contain might be lost to science should they be snapped up by a private collector with deep pockets.

The fossils capture two extremely rare dinosaurs in what appears to be the moment they killed each other 67 millions years ago. The carnivore, Nanotyrannus lancensis, left some of his teeth in the skull and neck of the herbivore Chasmosaurine ceratopsian. In turn, Nanotyrannus’ chest and skull are crushed from a powerful blow to the side, perhaps a well-placed kick from Chasmosaurine. Nanotyrannus lancensis is either a relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex or a juvenile. This is one of only two examples of the species ever discovered so there’s still debate about whether it’s a separate pygmy tyrannosaur genus or a young T. Rex. Chasmosaurine ceratopsian is closely related to the Triceratops.

This is only the second known fossil to preserve two dinosaurs in a fight. In the other example the two dinosaurs are small, about the size of greyhounds, and they’re nowhere near as complete. The Montana dueling dinos are huge. They are both eight feet high, the ceratopsian 17 feet wide and the lancensis 22 feet wide. They are so well preserved that there are pockets of what could be skin from both animals still attached.

From the Bonhams press release:

The “Dueling Dinos” have the potential to radically advance modern paleontology, and illuminate the mysteries of life during the Cretaceous Age. Their superb preservation in fine-grain, loosely consolidated sandstone allowed them to remain intact despite the weight of the sediment that buried them. The specimens were removed in large, plaster-jacketed sections of earth, safeguarding the spatial relationships in which the bones were found. Both dinosaurs also exhibit extremely rare preserved soft (skin) tissue, offering spectacular possibilities for cellular research.

Additionally, the “Dueling Dinos” may hold the key to answering one of the most puzzling questions for paleontologists today. Presently, researchers are divided over whether Nanotyrannus’ are their own genus, or whether they are simply juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rexes. The Nanotyrannus involved in the “Dueling Dinos” is only the second example ever found, and by far the most complete, offering the best hope to date of answering this pressing scientific question.

Unfortunately, selling them for multi-millions isn’t exactly a boon to science. I find it downright odd that the auction house would emphasize their scientific significance when publicizing their sale to the highest bidder. It’s not like the sellers, the ranchers who own the land in the Hell Creek sedimentary rock formation of Montana where the dueling dinosaurs were found, have stipulated that all buyers must make the fossils available for research. This sale could very well end all scientific investigation of the specimen.

The owners did attempt to sell the fossils directly to museums before they put them up for auction, but their asking price was insane. The Smithsonian was given the chance to bid privately starting at around $15 million. They declined. The American Museum of Natural History received a similar offer which it too declined because of the exorbitant price and because it prefers to display dinosaurs excavated by the museum. The Field Museum of Chicago was also offered the duelers which it declined due to the expense, and this is the museum that paid $8.36 million at auction for Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex which currently holds the record for most expensive dinosaur ever sold.

Maybe one of those institutions who didn’t have $15 million might be able to scrape up half that for the auction, but those pre-sale estimates could easily be blown away in active bidding. Let’s just hope that whoever buys the fossils is willing to grant the scientific community access to it.

16 thoughts on “Fossil of fatal dinosaur combat to be sold at auction

  1. The museums of the world are full of things purchased by private parties and then donated for the benefit of others.

  2. But as the article mentions, the sellers could stipulate that the winning bid make the specimens freely available to scientific institutions. There’s no indication that the ranchers have done this, so greed is still on the table.

  3. “Could” stipulate? Would “Christ” make such a judgment? Do you have a judgment on the buyer too? How about the auction house?

  4. And private homes and storage lockers are full of artifacts that the scientific community does not even know of that could likely rewrite our knowledge of the past, if only they could be examined properly.

    And there are artifacts that we know exist, but are buried somewhere in private collections with no way to access them.

    I’m not sure why you’re upset that Chris pointed out that the sellers could stipulate that the item be made available to the scientific community. It’s a simple statement of fact. As for the auction house, well, for one, they are simply doing what the sellers wish. Second, that’s a whole other topic in itself, but more than one auction house has shown a distinctive lack of scruples in the past when it came to selling items of questionable provenance, for example.

  5. So, the “scientific community” has some right to “examine” artifacts in homes and storage lockers and “private collections” (or dig them up somewhere even on private land) because they can do that “properly” once that community knows about an artifact?

    “More than one auction house has shown a distinctive lack of scruples.” Therefore, is this auction house suspect too – because it doesn’t impose on the seller in a free market, conditions that some other private party thinks it should? Is a “distinctive” lack of scruples a misdemeanor or felony?

    While some countries have laws that may speak to these issues, it is unlikely that those “ranchers” in Montana are under any such constraints.

  6. Please quit assuming or saying that I said things that I did not say. Are you perhaps somehow connected to the sellers? Because you seem to be taking this personally. You also seem to be reading things that are not there. Nothing AT ALL has been said about misdemeanors or felonies.

    I did not say that scientists have a right to force private owners to share collections. My point is that by CHOOSING NOT to share their collections, private owners are hampering the advancement of knowledge. It is not illegal. It IS, however, terribly selfish. And the seller of an item has a right to sell it with stipulations.

    I also did not say anything about his particular auction house. I simply commented that 1) auction houses act under instructions of the seller, and 2) auction houses IN GENERAL have not been particularly scrupulous in the past when dealing with things like items that may have been stolen or looted (just to forestall your indignation that I’m accusing the sellers of this item of looting or stealing it, no, I am not saying, or even implying that. I am simply making a general broad statement of fact.)

    And now, if you are done misrepresenting what I have said, I will bid good day to you.

  7. Attributing associations, emotions and motivations to the questioner does not answer the questions.

    Making broad and interpretive statements that attempt to construe “facts” or offer attempts to introduce alternative meanings to previous commentary does not answer the questions.

    Answer the questions. Start with “yes” or “no” to support or refute the argument. Otherwise, recognize and accept that “Pure. Greed.” is neither a fact nor an imperative for another person. It is an opinion.

  8. You seem determined to win an argument where none existed. Most of your “questions” are irrelevent to my comment. It is you who started ascribing that somehow anyone was implying illegality to the sellers, or that the scientific community ought to have the right to force private owners to allow access to the scientific community. No such comment was made, so I see no need to answer questions about comments that exist only in fantasy and not in fact.

    As for your last line… this is a comment thread on an internet blog, not a PhD dissertation. Did you expect something OTHER than opinion in a two word comment?

  9. Yes. Read the many other comments on this blog. In the vast majority of cases, they are thoughtful and constructive. They contribute to the overall understanding of subjects that are carefully prepared and eloquently stated by a very knowledgeable host. Sometimes they offer additional insights–at times, even corrections which are graciously accepted. The first two comments in this thread offer the opposite and detract from the discussion. This is not a newspaper or an outlet for some political movement and it deserves comments of quality rather than two-word quips or predictions about the demise of mankind.

  10. I have read many comments on this blog. Actually in the vast majority of cases they are simple thanks to the blogger, who does a great service to everyone with the hard work they do. Some ask a question. Some do add greatly to the topic. Some others are snarky or humorous (for example, the comment about seeing the TARDIS in the background of the newly authenticated Van Gogh). To each their own, I do not feel the need to berate someone for such comments.

    As for the actual topic at hand, as noted in the story the asking price is very high, probably out of reach of most (or all) institutions. This means that this extremely rare scientific find involving the discovery of a new species of dinosaur is likely at the mercy of whatever private buyer has the cash to purchase it, and barring a philanthropic investor it is probable that the fossils will disappear into a private collection, perhaps not to resurface again for years, perhaps even decades.

    Does this upset me? Yes. Do I wish the sellers would stipulate that the buyer allow at least some limited access to the find? Yes. Are they within their rights as the seller to do this? Yes. Would the auction house allow this? Yes. Is the auction house likely to try to steer the seller to do this? Probably not.

    Also, the seller could lower the starting bid to at least allow some possibility of an institution acquiring it. Or the seller could allow first right of refusal to selected institutions at a lower price. Or delay the sale and allow it to be studied prior to sale. The fact that the sellers are doing none of these things indicates that they really are probably more interested in simply getting as much money for the specimens as they can, scientific value be damned.

    If you have some other explanation for the seller’s behavior, feel free to expound upon it. And yes, it’s legal. Just because it is legal doesn’t mean I have to like it, or have to have a high opinion of the behavior, any more than I have to like cigarette companies for making cigarettes.

    As for the rest of your comments, I daresay this blog also does not need self-righteous commenters who feel the need to misrepresent what others say and feel the need to impose their own personal standard on what is a “worthy” comment, even while they misrepresent what those comments are.

  11. Well, you answered some questions in the previous post. And you made a few pertinent observations about the subject. Good for you. Keep it up.

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