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Sitting in a basement of a house outside Somers, Wisconsin is a 12,000-year-old skeleton that may be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's a skeleton of a now-extinct mammoth. And by some accounts, it's the best specimen of it ever found in North America.
A retired couple owns the bones, and they're trying to sell them. And that's reignited a debate over what museum should pay for ancient relics. We get the story from Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio.
CHUCK QUIRMBACH: The mammoth bones were unearthed from a southern Wisconsin cornfield owned by John and Theresa Hebior 13 years ago. After all the remains were dug up and cataloged, some museums made replicas of the bones. But for the last year or so, the bones themselves have been back in John Hebior's basement.
(Soundbite of drilling)
QUIRMBACH: Hebior is using a reversible drill to remove screws from one of the 15 or so wooden crates holding the bones. Hebior lifts the lid on the crate to reveal the mammoth's now dark-brown and gray molars.
Mr. JOHN HEBIOR (Farmer, Wisconsin): These are the teeth. They look like the bottom of tennis shoes.
QUIRMBACH: The Hebiors have been trying to sell these bones for sometime to raise college tuition money for their grandkids. They say they're not interested in the tax break they would get from donating the mammoth, and John Hebior says he wants to get the bones out of his basement.
So yesterday, the Hebiors invited some scientists and museum officials down from Milwaukee, including Marquette University archaeologist David Overstreet.
Professor DAVID OVERSTREET (Archaeologist, Marquette University): So there are actually three complete feet on this mammoth and one partial foot. And that's unheard of. I don't think anybody has ever got four complete feet.
QUIRMBACH: Overstreet told officials from the Milwaukee Public Museum that the mammoth's skeleton is 90 percent complete and one of the most intact ever found on the continent. The discussions went on for hours.
Prof. OVERSTREET: Yeah. I think there is a little - here is the same thing, where you can see a little bit in there.
Prof. OVERSTREET: I think that's mold medium that just hasn't been cleaned off.
QUIRMBACH: The Hebiors think the bones have a value in the six figures and say they've already received an offer from a gallery in New Orleans. But Milwaukee Museum president Dan Finley is impressed with the mammoth specimen. And despite the museum's budget troubles, says he'll likely make a bid for the bones, much the way another Midwest museum acquired a large dinosaur skeleton 10 years ago.
Mr. DAN FINLEY (President, Milwaukee Public Museum): The Field Museum in Chicago has Sue, the T-rex. And we really think this specimen could become our signature exhibit at the museum.
QUIRMBACH: Finley downplays the idea of asking the Hebiors to donate the bones, saying the couple has already been very generous with scientists. But the proposed sale revives the debate over how much museums should pay to acquire relics.
Roger Thomas teaches at Franklin & Marshall College and is secretary of the Paleontological Society. He says if a museum can't get the bones donated, it will likely need help from the corporate world. But that would be better than losing the mammoth to private collectors.
Professor ROGER THOMAS (Secretary, Paleontological Society; Franklin & Marshall College): Very often, when a museum wants to buy a very expensive specimen, it might seek a sponsor who would actually put up the money.
(Soundbite of drilling)
QUIRMBACH: Until the right offer comes along, John Hebior drills the screws back into the wooden crates and stacks the 12,000-year-old mammoth bones into a most unlikely exhibit space: a dry corner of his basement.
For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Somers, Wisconsin.
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