The New York auction house Bonhams hoped to set a world record Tuesday for the sale of a fossil—a controversial specimen containing two dinosaurs. But despite a public bidding war, the final offer of $5.5 million failed to meet the seller’s minimum price, which was somewhere between $5.5 and $7 million. So Bonhams pulled its prize specimen from the auction block.
The specimen, found on a Montana ranch in 2006, includes two dinosaurs: a member of the Ceratopsidae family that may be a new species and a member of the Tyrannosauridae family that could settle a long-standing debate about juvenile and adult tyrannids. The finders dubbed the specimen “The Dueling Dinosaurs” because the animals were found touching one another and seemed to bear marks of mortal combat, such as missing teeth and shattered chest bones. But some paleontologists say that the skeletons may simply have come to rest side by side and even intermingled with each other after death.
All the same, paleontologists say the specimen likely has scientific value, and today’s failed attempt to sell it is the latest chapter in a long and bitter controversy over its fate. Many paleontologists fear that owner Clayton Phipps, a commercial fossil hunter from Montana, will sell to a private collector who may not allow detailed scientific study. If that happens, “then someone might as well walk up to it with a sledgehammer and turn it to dust,” says paleontologist Thomas Carr of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Selling to private collectors is against the ethical guidelines of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, explains Catherine Forster, a paleontologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Private collectors may have little interest in the scientific study of their specimens and are often ill-informed about what is needed to conserve delicate specimens over time, she says. “Fossils are fragile things and they need to be taken proper care of.”
Phipps discovered the specimen on a neighbor’s ranch in 2006. With permission from the landowner, he excavated the find over a 3-month period with a small team and placed it in four plaster jackets. Since then, he has been trying to sell the specimen, something he is legally entitled to do because it was found on private land.
Exactly how important the specimen is scientifically remains unclear because it hasn’t been fully prepared or thoroughly studied. But information provided by the auction house suggests that the carnivore resembles a specimen from Montana controversially identified by paleontologist Robert Bakker of the Houston Museum of Natural Science and others as a new species, Nanotyrannus lancensis, or pygmy tyrant. This animal looked very much like a Tyrannosaurus rex, but it was one-third the length and had more teeth. Other paleontologists strongly disputed this species, however, suggesting that the “pygmy tyrant” was simply a juvenile T. rex with extra teeth that would have been lost as it grew. The new specimen could help settle the debate. The auction house catalog also suggests that the herbivore half of the Dueling Dinosaurs could be a new Ceratopsian species, based on certain key aspects of the skull, such as a short brow horn.
The auction house will continue to work to sell the specimen, says Tom Lindgren, consulting co-director of Bonhams' natural history department. In the run-up to the auction, “more than one” public institution expressed interest in buying the specimen, he says, but reported that they needed more time to line up the money. Lindgren thinks that they will now have the chance. “I am very confident that we will find a home for this specimen yet,” he says.