Dinosaurs are some of the most fascinating creatures to ever walk the earth. They fascinate both children and adults alike, and for good reason – they are huge, powerful, and awe-inspiring animals.
Fossils are big business, and over the years, a number of extremely expensive fossils have been sold at auction. And it’s not just the scientific community and museums who are buying, with there now being an increasing number of wealthy, private collectors looking to snap up their very own piece of prehistoric history.
While this is good for dinosaur hunters and collectors, it’s not so great for everybody else, with there now being a bigger risk than ever of dinosaur specimens being snapped up and install in the homes of the rich, never to be seen again.
That said – and given how rare and magnificence some of these dinosaur skeletons are – it’s no wonder, that they can fetch such high prices at auction. In this article, we will take a look at some of the most expensive dinosaur specimens ever sold at auction.
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What is the controversy around dinosaur fossil auctions?
The auctioning of dinosaur fossils has often been met with controversy. Some paleontologists and archaeologists have argued that the fossils should be kept in public museums so that they can be studied and appreciated by the general public. They argue that the private ownership of these fossils could lead to them being hidden away or even destroyed.
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) – an international organization of professional and amateur vertebrate paleontologists – has officially condemned the commercial sale of vertebrate fossils.
Others, however, argue that the auctioning of dinosaur fossils provides a valuable source of funding for paleontological research and helps to ensure the preservation of these unique specimens.
And it’s not just the debate between the scientific community and private collectors that is controversial – in fact, many of the more high profile dinosaur fossil sales in recent years have been shrouded in controversy themselves, with no shortage of ownership disputes between those who discover and attempt to sell these prehistoric finds.
Whatever your opinion on the matter, there is no denying that some dinosaur fossils have sold for staggering amounts of money at auction.
Is it legal to buy and sell dinosaur fossils?
The legality of buying and selling dinosaur fossils varies from country to country. In the United States, for example, it is legal to buy and sell most fossils, with a few exceptions. These exceptions include vertebrate fossils that are more than 100 years old, and any fossil that is considered part of the archeological record.
In other countries, like China, it is illegal to buy and sell fossils without a permit. This has not stopped the Chinese black market from thriving, however.
It is estimated that the Chinese black market for fossils generates about $80 million dollars per year. The most expensive dinosaur fossil ever sold on the black market was a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton that was sold for $1.5 million dollars.
Are dinosaur fossils a good investment?
There has been a great deal of discussion in the paleontology community over the past few years about whether or not dinosaur fossils are a good investment.
Some experts say that they are, as the market for dinosaur fossils continues to grow and prices continue to go up. Other experts claim that the market for dinosaur fossils is saturated, and that it’s only a matter of time before prices start to drop.
If you just take a look at some of the more recent prices that fossils have fetched at auction – most notably, the 2020 sale of Stan the T-Rex for a whopping $31.9m – it’s hard to argue that these impressive one-of-a-kind fossils aren’t increasing in value exponentially.
Whatever the future may hold for the market value of dinosaur fossils, there’s no denying that some specimens have sold for astronomical sums in the past.
We’re looking specifically at auctions – not direct or private sales
For the benefit of this article, we’ll be looking at auction sales only – not private sales, or fossils acquired from those who found them directly.
That means that specimens like the Dueling Dinosaurs, which sold to the nonprofit organization Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for $6 million in 2020, and the $8 million sale of “Prince”, “Apollonia”, and “Twinky” – the trio of Diplodocidae sold to the National University of Singapore in 2015.
While these are both noteworthy dinosaur fossil sales, both for their price and scientific significance, they haven’t made it to our list as they were acquired at auction. With that out of the way, let’s get into it – here is our round-up of some of the most expensive dinosaurs sold at auction to date.
Most Expensive Dinosaurs Sold at Auction
1. Stan the T-Rex – $31.9m
The most expensive T-Rex skeleton ever sold at auction was “Stan.” Stan was auctioned off for $31.9 million in October of 2020. The buyer has not been publicly identified.
There has been some controversy surrounding the sale of Stan the T-Rex. Some paleontologists have accused the buyer of paying too much for the skeleton and of contributing to the looting of fossils from private land. The buyer has denied these accusations and stated that he plans to donate the skeleton to a museum.
Since the purchase, it’s been confirmed that Stan the T-Rex will be put on display at the Natural History Museum in Abu Dhabi – a project that’s currently under construction and expected to open to the public in 2025.
2. Sue the T-Rex – $8.3m
In 1992, Sue was discovered by paleontologists working for the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota. The discovery of Sue created a lot of excitement in the paleontology community, as she is one of the most complete and well-preserved T-Rex skeletons ever found.
The Black Hills Institute planned to sell Sue to a museum, however, there was an ownership between the institute and the land owner, which the land owner won after intervention of the government and seizure of the fossil by the FBI.
The fossil was eventually sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $8.3 million in 1997 – equivalent to around $13.5 million today – making it the most expensive fossil ever sold at that time.
Sue is currently on display at the Field Museum, and is one of the most popular attractions at the museum.
3. Big John the triceratops – $7.7m
Big John was discovered by Walter W. Stein in 2014, being found in the Hell Creek geological formation, in South Dakota. This specimen is one of the most complete Triceratops skeleton that’s been found so far, being around 60% complete.
It isn’t the most complete Triceratops even discovered, the title belongs to Horridus the Triceratops, an 85% complete specimen that was unearthed back in 2010. Horridus is currently on display at the Melbourne Museum, who acquired the fossil for $5.5m in late 2017.
Big John was auctioned off by Denver-based fossil dealer Peter Larson for $7.7 million, by Paris-based auction house Hôtel Drouot, to a private seller from the US. The specimen holds two dinosaur auction records, being both the most expensive Triceratops specimen sold, as well as the most expensive dinosaur fossil sold in Europe.
4. The fighting pair – $2.7m
In 2007, the team from Dinosauria International LLC made an exciting discovery in Wyoming: two virtually complete skeletons of an Allosaurus and a Stegosaurus locked in mortal combat.
The carnivore and herbivore were long suspected of having fought battles across the savannahs of North America during the Upper Jurassic Period, however, the two had never been found together like this before. Given their close proximity and the state in which they were found, paleontologists have hypothesized that the two had likely become entombed in mud after fighting to the death.
As is customary, each specimen was given a nickname, the Stegosaurus being named “Fantasia” – a reference to the T-Rex vs Stegosaurus battle depicted in the beloved Disney classic. While the Allosaurus was given the name “Dracula”, thanks to it’s bristling mouthful of deadly, pointed teeth.
The pair were sold together as a lot by Dallas-based auction house Heritage Auctions in 2011, with a winning bid of $2.7m – a sum that goes some way to testify to the historical significance of this find. While it’s unclear exactly who bought the specimens, with the auction house declining to disclose information relating to the buyer, they did state that the fossils were purchases by a museum located outside of the US.
5. The mystery dinosaur – $2.4m
An unidentified dinosaur skeleton fetched close to $2.4 million at an auction that took place at the Eiffel Tower, Paris, in mid-2018. The specimen – which was first thought to be an Allosaurus – stands 9 feet tall and 30 feet long, and is close to 70% complete.
The dinosaurs was first discovered in Wyoming, at the Morrison Formation site, back in 2013. Once unearthed – and upon closer examination – scientists found several subtle differences between this specimen and other known Allosaurus fossils. In particular the number of teeth, which differed significantly from those of other Allosaurus specimens. While it’s unclear exactly what species of dinosaur this fossil is, what is known is that it was a carnivore that roamed the Earth during the late Jurassic period.
The buyer of the mystery dinosaur has decided to remain anonymous, and even now, it’s unclear where the fossil has ended up, with paleontologists obviously hoping that it turns up in a museum eventually, allowing them to further study it.
This particular sale is one of note given the controversy around dinosaur fossil sales, particularly those that end up in museums, never to be seen again by the scientific community – especially given that this specimen is thought to be an entirely new species of dinosaur.
Well there you have it, our round-up of some of the most expensive dinosaur specimens sold to date at auction. Those auctions that made it to our list include some of the most complete, rare, and extraordinary dinosaur fossil finds to date – all of which contribute to the mouth-watering sums of money some of these finds have gone for (we’re looking at you Stan!).
As dinosaur enthusiasts ourselves, it’s hard to deny the appeal of these awesome fossils – and we can certainly understand why private individuals would want to acquire them, if they’ve got the money. That said, it’s not great for the rest of us, as more of these specimens eventually end up in private hands, and not on display in museums for the public to enjoy.
While their remains a lot of controversy around dinosaur fossil auctions, the market for these items and the interest from wealthy buyers continues to grow. This will likely to make it both harder for the scientific community to study them and for the public to see them – something that we for one would be devastated to see happen!