Dinosaur skeleton sells for $12.4 million at Christie’s

It may not be a Matisse, or a Warhol, but this multi-million dollar sale at Christie’s comes from a different artist: Mother Nature.

On Thursday night, Christie’s sold the skeleton of a Deinonychus antirrhopus, a species that became one of the world’s most recognizable dinosaurs after the release of the movie “Jurassic Park,” for $12.4 million, with fees , to an undisclosed buyer. The auction follows the trend of high-priced fossil sales, a pattern that has rankled some paleontologists, who fear specimens will be lost to science if bought by private individuals rather than public institutions.

The auction house said the fossil, nicknamed Hector, was the first public sale of a Deinonychus, an agile bipedal dinosaur known for the menacing claws on its feet. The sale price was more than double the maximum estimated by the auction house of 6 million dollars.

The species probably wouldn’t get as much attention if it weren’t for “Jurassic Park.” In the novel and the 1993 film, the beasts called velociraptors actually look more like a Deinonychus (the novel’s author, Michael Crichton, once admitted that “velociraptor” sounded more dramatic).

This skeletal specimen contains 126 real bones, but the rest is reconstructed, including most of the skull, the auction house said. Dating approximately 110 million years to the early Cretaceous period, the specimen was excavated on private land in Montana about a decade ago by Jack and Roberta Owen, self-taught paleontologists, according to Jared Hudson, a commercial paleontologist who purchased and prepared the sample. It was later purchased by the most recent owner, who remains anonymous.

“I had no idea it would end up at Christie’s,” Jack Owen, 69, said in an interview this week. He said he was trained in archeology and that he had worked as a ranch manager and fence contractor.

Owen had struck a deal with the owner of the ranch where he worked, allowing him to dig for fossils and split the profits, he said. He first saw some of the bone fragments in an area where he had already found two other animals. Using a scalpel and toothbrush, among other tools, he and Roberta, his wife, carefully collected the specimen, with some help.

Seeing it cost millions of dollars is staggering, he said: the profit he received was nowhere near it. But Owen said his fossil hunt was not driven by money.

“It’s about hunting; it’s about the find,” she said. “You are the only human being in the world who has touched that animal, and that is priceless.”

Fossils of the species were discovered by paleontologist John H. Ostrom in 1964, and he gave them the name Deinonychus, meaning terrible claw, after the highly curved hunting claw he believed the dinosaur used to slash at its prey. . Ostrom’s discovery was fundamental to the way scientists understand some dinosaurs today: less lizard-like and more bird-like; fast-moving and possibly warm-blooded, and even feathered.

That scientific development is one reason academic paleontologists might be interested in studying specimens like Hector.

Some paleontologists have long opposed the practice of auctioning off these fossils because they fear the specimens will end up selling for prices beyond the reach of museums.

The subject gained prominence with the sale of Sue, the T. rex skeleton, to the Field Museum for $8.36 million (nearly $15 million in today’s dollars) in 1997. And it has received new scrutiny more recently, after a T. rex skeleton nicknamed Stan brought in a record $31.8 million, nearly quadrupling its maximum estimate of $8 million.

Before Christie’s auctioned off Stan in 2020, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology urged considering restricting the sale to “bidders from institutions committed to conserving specimens for the public good and in perpetuity, or those bidding on behalf of such institutions.” .

“As an organization, we made a decision to feel like vertebrate fossils belonged in museums,” Jessica M. Theodor, president of the society, said in an interview. “If it’s in private hands, that person dies, his estate sells the specimen, and the information is lost.”

Many commercial paleontologists, like Hudson, who bought Hector from the Owens, counter that their work is also critical to science and that they need to be paid for their work so they can continue to do so.

“If people like us weren’t in the ground,” Hudson said, “dinosaurs would be eroded away and completely cut off from science.”

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