On 4 June, geological hammers will give way to an auctioneer’s gavel as the fossilized skeleton of a gigantic predatory dinosaur goes up for sale in the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to the dismay of one of the world’s largest international paleontological societies.
The 8.7-meter-long specimen is estimated to be about 70% complete and between 151 million years and 156 million years old. It’s said to have been unearthed legally in 2013 in Wyoming, although the paleontologists who unearthed it remain anonymous. According to the auction house Aguttes’s promotional catalog, the specimen may belong to a previously unknown species, probably a close relative of the iconic Jurassic predator Allosaurus fragilis. Eric Mickeler, a Barcelona, Spain–based member of The European Chamber of Expert-Advisors in Fine Art who is overseeing the auction for Arguttes, has told some media that the buyer might have a say in choosing a scientific name for the potentially new species. He estimates the specimen’s value as €1.2 million to €1.8 million.
But assessing the specimen’s scientific status and naming it if it does represent a new species requires scientific access and analysis—which the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) in Bethesda, Maryland, says may not happen if the highest bidder is a private party. Earlier this month, SVP officials wrote to Aguttes urging the cancellation of the sale. The letter points out that professional ethics dictate that a specimen can be the basis for a new name only if it’s housed in a recognized museum or other repository.
Mickeler, contacted by Science, argues that the SVP’s concerns are overblown. He says in his experience, dinosaur fossils have always ended up on display even if bought by a private bidder. “Rich people buy them and make a gift [to] museums,” he says. He cites a Triceratops nicknamed “Cliff” now on permanent display in the Boston Museum of Science as one such gift.
Will the specimen go €1.2 million? Previous dinosaur auctions, including “Cliff” failed to meet expected prices. The Aguttes catalog points out that a specimen with markedly distinct features merits a high price. But Kenneth Carpenter, a paleontologist at Utah State University in Price, says it is far from clear that the dinosaur has the distinct features of an unknown species. The apparently distinct bones in the skeleton may belong to a second individual whose bones were fossilized at the same time, he says.
The dinosaur skeleton may indeed contain bones from two individuals, according to Pascal Godefroit at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. Godefroit is one of the few professional paleontologists to have examined the skeleton—in December 2016 he chanced to visit the workshop in Trieste, Italy, where the specimen was being prepared, and offered to assess the dinosaur. His written notes appear in the Aguttes catalog, although he stresses he had no idea the specimen would end up at auction when he agreed to assess its scientific importance. Godefroit says the dinosaur’s lower jaw is remarkably slender and its bone patina is different from the rest of the skull, which might hint that it came from a different animal.
Either way, the sale is a bad idea, says SVP President David Polly. “Selling fossils at high prices like this tends to create the perception that they have a commercial value,” he says. “Over the last 25 years it’s become increasingly hard for paleontologists to work on private land because landowners think there is money to be made and they want to charge for access.”
But he thinks this auction is likely to go forward. Mickeler replied to SVP’s letter, Polly said, suggesting that the nonprofit scientific organization try to buy the fossil with backing from rich donors. “He offered to get us a ticket to the auction,” Polly says.