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A dinosaur skeleton that was only half-real sold at Christie's for over R189 million

Business Insider US
Vicky Leta/Insider
Vicky Leta/Insider
  • An incomplete skeleton of the dinosaur deinonychus sold at Christie's for $12.4 million (R195.5 million).
  • Two paleontologists said the sale represents an "alarming trend" in inflated prices on fossils.
  • They said wealthy private buyers are effectively pricing researchers and museums out of the market.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Some millionaires buy yachts, others buy Rolexes. Some buy dinosaurs.

Christie's auction house sold a specimen of the dinosaur deinonychus, nicknamed "Hector," for $12.4 million (R195.5 million) late on Thursday. The sale price was more than doubling the estimated price that was placed on the lot.

Deinonychus was a carnivorous raptor that walked the Earth around 110 million years ago, with scythe-like claws on its feet. It served as the inspiration behind the velociraptors in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park." Real-life velociraptors were just over 1.5 feet tall.

Two paleontologists told Insider that the auction of Hector is the latest installment in a deeply worrying trend where private buyers snap up dinosaur fossils at exorbitant prices, effectively pricing researchers and museums out of the market.

The huge price tag on Hector was especially shocking given the fact the skeleton is far from complete. Christie's said Hector comprises 126 fossil bones and the rest of him is a reconstructed cast.

Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, told Insider he estimates that about half of Hector's original bones are present.

"Deranged prices like these for dinosaur skeletons, even incomplete ones like this, will all but eliminate museums, research, and education. It's totally unsustainable for our field," Brusatte added.

He added the problem of fossil price inflation has gotten "ridiculously worse."

Hector isn't the first blockbuster dinosaur to fetch a huge price tag at Christie's. In 2020, the auction house sold a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named "Stan" to an unknown buyer for $32 million (R504 million).

"$12.4 million (R195.5 million) for a significantly smaller and less complete dinosaur indicates an alarming trend upwards," Thomas Carr, an associate professor at Carthage College, told Insider.

Brusatte and Carr agreed that Hector is a fossil of huge importance, as even with a lot of bones missing it is potentially one of the best and most complete fossils of deinonychus ever found.

"The loss of one good skeleton of Deinonychus is quite damaging to science because there aren't many fossils of that dinosaur at all," Carr said.

Both paleontologists said because fossils like Stan and Hector go to private bidders, there's little to no transparency around who owns them.

Stan is slated to appear at a new museum in Abu Dhabi, although Carr and Brusatte both said it is still unclear who exactly owns the fossil.

At one point, it was speculated that Stan had been bought by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Johnson later debunked the rumour and explained he owned a cast of Stan's skull rather than the actual fossil.

Stan on display at Christie's in New York in 2020.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

"If I was the proud owner of the real STAN, I sure as hell wouldn't keep him in my office," Johnson said in an Instagram post. "I'd keep him in a museum, so the world could enjoy, study and learn from him."

According to Brusatte, private owners of dinosaur fossils don't usually share The Rock's approach to paleontology.

"Most of the time these fossils literally disappear into the collection of some nameless uber-rich person," Brusatte said.

Carr said the gold rush for privately owned dinosaur skeletons has already impacted his work, giving the example that roughly half the sample size of T. Rex specimens has been walled off by private purchases.

"That's about 50 specimens that I can't include in my research because the commercial trade will sell fossils to anyone who can afford extortion-level prices," he said.

Less than 20% of privately collected T. Rex fossils have made it back into a museum, he added. 

Brusatte said he's not ideologically opposed to people privately owning fossils.

"Collecting these kinds of fossils are what got me into paleontology. Finding my own fossils as a teenager was intoxicating. I wouldn't want to take that magic, that opportunity away from anybody," he said.

"What I object to specifically is these dinosaurs becoming commodities that are now selling at such insanely high prices that only a handful of the very richest people in the world can afford them," he said.

Christie's did not respond when contacted by Insider for this article.

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