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Sotheby’s to auction largest Stegosaurus

Kelly Kasulis Cho & Jonathan Edwards, World’s largest stegosaurus skeleton to be auctioned for millions, Washington Post, 30 May 2024

Past fossil auctions have come under fire for selling at prices museums can’t afford and for allowing rare discoveries to disappear into private collections.

The Stegosaurus ‘Apex’ fossil is valued at between $4 million and $6 million. (Matthew Sherman/Sotheby’s).

Apex, the world’s largest stegosaurus skeleton ever found, is set to go on auction at Sotheby’s this summer with an estimated value of up to $6 million — a listing that has sparked both public intrigue and concern from some scientists who say selling rare fossils at steep prices can stifle research.

At 11 feet tall and more than 20 feet long, the fossil stands out in the scientific world for its massive size and its nearly complete skeleton, which was discovered by a commercial paleontologist in a sprawling rock formation on his private land near the town of Dinosaur, Colo. — yes, Dinosaur — in May 2022.

Named for its prominent size among stegosaurus fossils, Apex is estimated to be up to 161 million years old, according to Sotheby’s auction listing, and is about 30 percent larger than another notable stegosaurus specimen — Sophie — on display at the Natural History Museum in London.

Sotheby’s said Apex appeared to live a peaceful life; it has “no signs of combat or predation-related injuries,” the listing stated, adding that evidence of arthritis “indicates that it lived to an advanced age.”

Julien Louys, a paleontologist and professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, said the fossil was a “phenomenal discovery” for the scientific community.

“In terms of vertebrates, it’s incredibly rare to get most of the skeleton preserved and probably even more so for big animals like dinosaurs. Elements tend to get lost through the fossilization process and the recovery process,” he said. “But with such a spectacular specimen, it’d be sad to see it not available to both the general population as well as for scientists to look at.”

In 2022, Apex’s owner, Jason Cooper, found little pieces of fossil sticking out of the ground on his privately owned land near Dinosaur, said Cassandra Hatton, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s. When Cooper later returned to excavate and found more than just one small bone, the paleontologist contacted Sotheby’s to alert the auction house that he might be on to a sizable find.

Over the next two years, Cooper and his team worked to excavate the Apex fossil while Sotheby’s documented the project, which included removing hunks of rock at the dig site, separating the fossil from the surrounding rock and dirt at labs, gluing broken fossils together, and placing them into something recognizable as a stegosaurus skeleton.

Cooper lucked out because Apex’s fossils were largely in one location because the dinosaur “died curled up in a death pose,” Hatton said. That allowed him to excavate the entire specimen in about a year’s time over two seasons in 2022 and 2023. Other projects have taken a decade or more because paleontologists were seeking fossils of a dinosaur that died in a riverbed, which then spread its remains over a larger area.

Hatton said she didn’t know how much Cooper spent to excavate this particular specimen but said that similar projects have cost between $600,000 and $700,000. There’s no public fund that finances digs for dinosaur fossils, Hatton said.

Apex has a 45-inch femur and 247 fossil bone elements, which have been mounted into an aggressive attack pose. (Matthew Sherman/Sotheby’s).

Past sales of rare fossils to private bidders have drawn significant backlash, particularly when corporations or anonymous collectors pay what some have called “extortion-level prices” for rare specimens. Sotheby’s previously sold a 200-pound Tyrannosaurus rex head to an anonymous buyer for $6 million, though that was well below its estimated value of up to $20 million. In 2018, members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology wrote an open letter calling for a Parisian auction house to halt plans to sell a dinosaur fossil advertised to be from a new species. It later sold to an anonymous buyer for more than 2 million euros.

Diego C. García-Bellido, a senior researcher of paleontology at the South Australian Museum and a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia, noted that Sotheby’s listed Apex as an undetermined species of stegosaurus, which he said could mean its species is being kept secret or that scientists haven’t had a chance to properly study it yet. Excavation of the stegosaurus was completed in October.

“We have no chance,” he said. “Science cannot compete with private companies [or wealthy buyers] in terms of getting their hands on a specimen.”

“I know how strapped for cash, in general, museums are. … Five or 6 million dollars is the sort of money that almost no museum in the world can afford to pay,” he said.

However, many institutions would not have the infrastructure to display such a massive skeleton, García-Bellido added, and commercial paleontologists often spend a considerable amount of their own money excavating and preparing a specimen.

“I’m not in the position to criticize a land owner who prepares and puts a lot of work into getting one of these fossils out,” he said, adding: “If it wasn’t for him, you know what? We wouldn’t have known it existed.”

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