In 1987, years before Jurassic Park would kick off a new era of dinomania, fossil hunter Stan Sacrison stumbled upon something interesting eroding out of the South Dakota badlands. Bone fragments gave away the presence of a big dinosaur, and, through an excavation carried out by the commercial fossil outfit Black Hills Institute in 1992, the fossil turned out to be a gorgeous Tyrannosaurus rex. The specimen was nicknamed “Stan” after its discoverer, and has been replicated in casts all over the world. But now Stan is gaining fame for another reason. The T. rex was just sold for a record-breaking amount, opening a new chapter in an ongoing tussle between academics, commercial dealers, and land owners, all based in the foundational question of who fossils belong to.
No one was expecting Stan to sell for so much. The famous Tyrannosaurus rex specimen went at auction for $31.8 million on October 6. That’s more than twice the adjusted value of Sue, the most complete T. rex yet found, which sold for over $8.3 million in 1997.
But to researchers, fossils are literally priceless. A dinosaur bone or skeleton is not like a painting or classic comic book. There’s no metric to assess its worth because its true value is as a time capsule from a distant time, and what can be learned from that fossil changes as science proceeds. A bone that might seem plain on the outside might hold important information about growth, body chemistry, or other aspects of dinosaur lives. But when a fossil goes to market, what a dinosaur sells for is entirely up to what bidders are willing to pay—and T. rex is the most sought-after dinosaur of all.
To date, Stan’s buyer hasn’t been announced. Nor has it been made clear whether the skeleton will end up at a museum like Sue did. The idea that Stan may wind up as a curio in someone’s home has been a persistent worry of paleontologists as it seems that every year another significant skeleton goes to auction.
A fossil kept in private hands is effectively lost to science, and studies of such fossils are often barred from publication. That’s because private owners can often deny access to researchers or sell off specimens to other parties, making it impossible for multiple research teams to verify previous studies. Given the sheer number of papers on the body mass, speed, and bite force of T. rex alone, keeping fossils in the public trust is imperative for paleontology to move forward.
Why Stan sold for so much is unclear. “There is a whole psychological aspect to the live bidding process,” points out University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz, Jr. “If the uniqueness if what the bidder wanted, they didn’t get that.” Multiple museums have casts of Stan on display, so it’s not the same as acquiring a new specimen or even a fossil still encased in stone.
Naturally, other T. rex specimens are out there. Around 50 partial skeletons have