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Gorgosaurus Skeleton Sells for $6M--and the Buyer Gets to Name It

Lori Lamothe

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The Gorgosaurus on display at Sotheby's in New York.(Sotheby's)

Sotheby's sold a rare Gorgosaurus skeleton this morning for $6,069,500 million. In an unusual twist, the new owner--whose identity is currently unknown--gets to name the massive fossil that measures 10 feet high by 22 feet long,

The 77-million-year-old skeleton had been available for viewing at Sotheby's in New York City since July 21 and bidding opened this morning at 10 a.m ET: The sale marked the high point of the company's Natural History auction:

"In my career, I have had the privilege of handling and selling many exceptional and unique objects, but few have the capacity to inspire wonder and capture imaginations quite like this unbelievable Gorgosaurus skeleton," Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby's global head of science and popular culture, said in a press statement. "Excavated only a few years ago, a Gorgosaurus has never before been offered at auction, and the opportunity of sharing this dinosaur with the public for the first time is an immense pleasure and a highlight of my career."

The Gorgosaurus unearthed three years ago in Havre, Montana was a member of the Tyrannasaurid family and lived on a North American floodplain in the late Cretaceous Period, when earth was much warmer. A cousin to the carnivorous T-Rex, the Gorgosaurus predates it by about 10 million years.

It has the same large head and small, two-fingered forelimbs, but the two-ton apex predator was faster and more deadly. Gorgosaurus translates from Greek to “dreadful lizard” and its dozens of sharp teeth make the name especially fitting:

"As the master hunter of its time, in which it was believed to have hunted in packs of four, the Gorgosaurus was a dominant force and a singular predator," Sotheby's said.
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(Swordlord3d/DeviantArt)

It belongs in a museum?

The idea of having an enormous piece of prehistory on display at home is wildly appealing to many wealthy investors. The question is: should they?

Most Gorgosaurus skeletons excavated in the Judith River Formation of Montana are held in institutional collections, making this the only specimen of its kind available for private ownership. The region is a historically important geological area that has been excavated by paleontologists for more than a hundred years, according to Sotheby’s.

I grew up on Indiana Jones movies and remember his passionate incantation: “It belongs in a museum!” As fossil prices skyrocket, however, more and more museums simply can't afford to compete with private buyers.

In the early 1800s, fossil hunters like Mary Anning made their living by selling their finds to individuals on the market for pieces of prehistory. But the amount she earned for her skeletons wasn't enough to spare her from a life of financial hardship, nor did she receive much credit for her remarkable discoveries along the Jurassic Coast in England.

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Plesiosaur fossil discovered by Mary Anning in 1821 on display at the Natural History Museum, Kensington.(Wikimedia)

Nowadays fossils found on private land sell for millions and the market shows no signs of slowing down. In 1997, Sotheby's sold "Sue," one of the biggest dinosaur fossils in history, for $8.36 million—a record at the time. Fortunately, that specimen is currently housed in Chicago’s Field Museum.

Prices keep climbing

Since then, prices continue to rise. In 2020, Christie's sold a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to an undisclosed buyer for $32 million. In May, the auction house sold a partially reconstructed Deinonychus—the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's velicoraptors—for $12.4 million. The price was more than twice the estimated selling price, though the skeleton contained just 126 real bones.

Shortly after the sale, Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, told Insider the craze for such skeletons could drive museums out of business:

Deranged prices like these for dinosaur skeletons, even incomplete ones like this, will all but eliminate museums, research, and education. It's totally unsustainable for our field."

In an email to CNN today, Brusatte cast doubt on the effect of the Sotheby's latest dinosaur sale: "It's a brave new world for our science . . . In a world where dinosaur skeletons fetch millions, where does that leave scientists and museums, who can't afford such inflated prices?"

The problem goes deeper than the fact that these skeletons won't be available to the public for viewing. While some buyers may be willing to share their purchases with researchers, others may not. There is no obligation for them to do so.

Peer review is an important facet of paleontology. If one dinosaur expert writes something about a particular fossil, his or her colleagues need to be able to go back and inspect the specimen for themselves. Doing so requires guaranteed access to the remains — something private fossil-owners may choose to withhold. --Mark Mancini, “Who Owns the Rights to a Dinosaur Skeleton?”

According to Sotheby's, the skeleton is "one of the most valuable dinosaurs to ever appear on the market." Will we discover the identity of its new owner--and learn Gorgosaurus's new name? More importantly, will its buyer donate the valuable find to a museum and allow researchers access to it?

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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