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, hawk-like 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.
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.”