A T-Rex skull is being sold for $20 million. A text about emotional value, science and the absurdity of possession.
Imagine you die, nobody cares for 76 million years, and then suddenly your head gets sold off for 20 million. As announced by the New York auction house Sotheby’s, a T-Rex skull will be up for auction there from December. It is said to be one of the most complete skulls of its kind ever excavated. The creature’s skull was found in South Dakota, in an area once home to countless species of dinosaurs lived and which is accordingly popular with researchers and paleontology nerds today. Sotheby’s says it expects a final price of up to $20 million.
Now the question arises why something millions of years older than the idea of money and private property itself is suddenly being auctioned off from private to private. Apparently, the current exchange value for dino bones has left all proportionality behind. How do millions in prices for dead animals come together?
First of all, a certain storytelling is important. That’s part of it when an auction house wants to activate the collector’s passion for collecting. Sotheby’s doesn’t skimp on superlatives. This find is “extremely rare” and the sale is an “unprecedented moment”. It even gives the head a name: “Maximus” to give this thing from the unimaginable past a personality, somewhere between a pet and an action figure, to make someone’s collector’s heart millions bleed somewhere. So that’s the emotional value of this skull.
The name “Maximus” alone is a pretty bold statement. First, there is no way of knowing with certainty that this female dinosaur was actually bio-male. Second, because “Maximus” sounds quite impressive. Just like the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the usual Spielberg depiction, this sinewy, skinny lizard monster with leathery skin, the tyrant king among the primal lizards. Newer theories suggest that T-Rex could have looked very different. For example like a huge fluffy fowl. But for the skull of a “relaxation dinosaur” nicknamed “Furby” there might not be 20 million. Who knows.
It is no exaggeration, however, that the skull is in excellent condition. This brings us to the real utility for science. While the rest of the skeleton weathered, “Maximus'” skull, jawbones, and teeth survived largely intact, including the smallest bones. That’s amazing considering that this dino is said to have lived an estimated 76 million years ago. It is therefore easier to study than specimens that are weathered or only partially preserved. Paleontologists lick their well-preserved lips.
An inestimable value for science, and thus for mankind. At least as long as she’s interested in better understanding the world she lives in. Nevertheless, the fabled prices that are currently set for dinosaur bones far outweigh any reasonable calculation of utility.
Similar to works of art, the collectible value of objects with mythical radiance in a global market knows no bounds. Last year, a competitor at auction house Christie’s sold another South Dakota dinosaur for $31.8 million. This is the record for the most lucrative dinosaur auction to date. That dinosaur had the nickname “Stan”. Already cuddlier! Who exactly transferred the almost thirty-two million is a business secret, it is known that “Stan” will be in a new natural history museum in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates from 2025.
This is a comparatively good result for such an auction. Scientists warn that the private buying and selling of scientifically relevant digs could result in them being withdrawn from the public. Similar to art, buyers tend to make their pieces available to museums on permanent loan. But it’s conceivable that whoever gets their hands on “Maximus” will lock the thing up in a purpose-built basement.
The Case of Sue
In the nineties there was already a corresponding controversy about a dinosaur skeleton called “Sue”. It was found by researchers in, you guessed it, South Dakota, on a patch of land then owned by a man named Maurice Williams. At the same time there was “Sue” on a Sioux reservation territory. Maurice Williams, himself a member of the Sioux nation, argued with the authorities over ownership for years before an agreement was finally reached. The state of South Dakota granted Williams ownership rights, with the proviso that he needed official permission to sell. In 1997, Sue went to a Chicago museum for $8.4 million.
What history shows is the absurdity of ownership. On the one hand, from the point of view of a dinosaur who died 76 million years ago, it is quite funny that mankind has now invented a system according to which the earth can belong to someone – including the bones underneath. On the other hand, capitalist entitlement was the best card Sioux Maurice Williams could play against US colonial entitlement. On the other hand, if the subject of dispute ends up in the Arabian Gulf – or in some Mr. McMoney’s basement, who will be happy in the end?
misfortune for science
Science is unfortunate in any case. Because although the researchers are the ones who ensure that dinosaur skeletons are lifted out of the ground undamaged, they are the ones who suffer from the global trade in millions of their finds. Prospects of profit and property disputes make excavation work on private land more difficult.
Paleontologists criticized this back in the late 1990s. Little has changed about that. As long as it is theoretically possible to buy and sell anything on, over, or under someone’s private three acres of land, one simply has to rely on buyers to handle their wares in the best interests of the community.