Putting A Price On 'Dueling Dinosaur' Fossils

What would you pay for a fossil of two complete dinosaurs locked in what seems to be a fight to the death? An auction house put that question to the test with the dinosaurs, discovered in 2006 in the Hell Creek formation of Montana. It got an unexpected answer.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

A couple of weeks ago, a triptych by the painter Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," sold at auction for over $140 million, the biggest price tag ever for a work of art. It's an amazing piece: Bacon at his brilliant and unnerving best. But it's a peculiar contrast to another auction this week involving some priceless natural history. An exceptionally rare fossil was up for sale. It's known as the Dueling Dinosaurs - two complete specimens dramatically locked in what seems to be a death grip.

The auction attracted paleontologists from all over, eager just to get a glimpse of the bones. They were projected to reach 7 to 9 million dollars, just a fraction of a great painting, but they failed to sell at all. Brian Switek is an author and columnist for National Geographic. He joins me now to explain what happened with these bones. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN SWITEK: Hi. Glad to be here.

RATH: So, first, can you describe the Dueling Dinosaurs, where they were found and why they're so pricey?

SWITEK: Sure. Yeah. They were found in 2006 in what's called the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. And they're about 66 million years old. And it seems to be a tyrannosaur and a horned dinosaur called a ceratopsid sort of locked together. Whether they actually were fighting at the time that they died is sort of, you know, up in the air. The hype behind this is that, you know, these might be new species, they might have been fighting each other when they died, so it's sort of this multiple layers of new dinosaur discoveries.

RATH: So can you help us understand the market here? This was a private auction, and it feels a little bit like an art auction. There's a combination, I guess, of rich collectors and investors who were bidding on rare items. Is that how it works?

SWITEK: Yeah. It was a public auction. So the fossil had actually been brought to various museums ahead of time to see if any museums might be interested. But the price tag was astronomical. I mean, the Smithsonian said that they had been approached for about $15 million for this fossil, so even higher than projected sale at auction. And that'd be insane for a museum to actually pay that amount. That could fund field operations and staff and museum curation for decades, if not centuries.

So failing to find a museum home, this went up for public auction, and anybody could bid on this fossil if they had the money to back it up. I mean, in the past, some people like Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio made headlines by getting into bidding wars over dinosaur fossils.

RATH: How do you appraise a fossil like that? I mean, obviously, there's a scientific value. But it seems from these Dueling Dinosaurs that something of it, there's also a factor of their beauty or how cool they look.

SWITEK: Yeah. There are no professional dinosaur appraisers, partially because professional paleontologists, you know, get ulcers seeing these things go up to auction like this. So instead, it often has to do with really what people are willing to pay, and it has to do with the completeness of the specimen, the rarity of the animal and also the celebrity of the animal. So a complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton can go for millions and millions of dollars, whereas for a complete triceratops or something that's a lot more common or doesn't have the same sort of cultural celebrity attached to it, it would go for a lot less.

RATH: Brian, obviously, people like you are concerned about what is lost to science. Can you talk about - in the case of this fossil in particular, the Dueling Dinosaurs - if this ends up in a private collection, you know, far from any real scientist's eyes, what do we lose?

SWITEK: Well, every fossil, whether it's a scrap of bone or a tooth or a full skeleton, it's like a time capsule. It contains a lot of secrets about prehistoric life that are being drawn out with more and more different techniques between CT scan and geochemical sampling. And this is also our story. I mean, our ancestors are little snuffly mammals that were living in the shadow of dinosaurs, were around at the same time. So if we can understand these dinosaurs better, we can understand the world that they lived in and also where we came from.

RATH: So now that it didn't sell, is it likely that this is going to end up in a museum instead of in Nicholas Cage's foyer?

SWITEK: I surely hope so. But you never really know. I mean, the people being this, you have the private landowners, who obviously want to make a good deal of money on this. You have the dinosaur hunter who found it, then lots of sort of fingers in the pot hoping to get a good price for this, which is really going to prohibit a lot of museums from actually being able to afford it. It's almost kind of gone beyond the reach of what paleontologists can afford now. So I'm not really sure what's going on. I heard a few things about deals trying to be worked out with a few museums, but it could wind up almost anywhere. It's really uncertain what's going to happen to this fossil now.

RATH: Brian Switek is an author and columnist for National Geographic. Brian, thank you.

SWITEK: Thank you very much for having me.

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RATH: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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