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Why Collect Ferraris When You Can Own a T. Rex?

(Bloomberg Opinion) — One thing that parents and their kids can agree on is that dinosaurs are amazing. Our planet was once home to fantastical beasts and we know this because paleontologists painstakingly reveal the magnificent skeletons buried beneath our feet.

Yet today these natural wonders aren’t just gawped at by awestruck museum visitors. They’re collected like precious gems, manuscripts or fine art. They’re prized by the Hollywood, technology and financial elite and auctioned off to the highest bidder.

A Tyrannosaurus rex, nicknamed Stan, sold at Christie’s in New York in 2020 for almost $32 million (it’s expected to become the star of a new natural history museum in Abu Dhabi).

This week, a winged pteranodon skeleton will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s, where it’s estimated to fetch up to $6 million. Although technically not a dinosaur, around half a dozen dino fossils have sold for at least that amount since 2020.

The profit motive means more fossils are being discovered, and yet the specter of museums being outbid by private collectors — and of important artifacts being locked away in mega-mansions and marketed as the next must-have alternative investment — makes a lot of people uneasy. Most worried are the scientists who fret about losing access to the best specimens. Meanwhile, this nascent market is suffering teething troubles stemming from how you define the completeness of a fossil.

In many countries, dinosaur fossils belong to the state and exports are banned, with one notable exception — those found on private land in US. These are the ones increasingly unearthed by commercial prospectors and sold by private dealers and auction houses.

There would be less controversy if museums and universities were able to fund the painstaking work of finding fossils themselves, but with the cost of excavating, cleaning and preparing a stegosaurus fossil estimated at around half a million dollars, that’s wishful thinking.

“The fossils that are being discovered are ones that are slowly being exposed due to erosion and weather events,” says Cassandra Hatton, head of science and popular culture at Sotheby’s. “You can either have a commercial paleontologist carefully excavating these or you can lose them forever, take your pick.”

The financialization of fossils is following a familiar script: Skeletons are pitched as the perfect living room or office accessory, and ranches are advertised to real estate buyers for their fossil-earnings potential.

Those with a smaller budget can purchase an equity stake in a triceratops skull on Rally, a collectibles investment platform; a 12-foot-tall polyurethane cast of Stan can be yours for just $150,000.  

German psychedelics and crypto investor Christian Angermayer has even floated the idea of a Jurassic investment fund. His Apeiron Investment Group ultimately decided not to go ahead with the idea, but he hasn’t gone off dinos: He’s the proud co-owner of a T. rex, a diplodocus, a nanosaurus and a triceratops head.

Fossils are natural sculptures, and large, near-complete skeletons are rare. Although around a couple of billion T. rexes are estimated to have walked the earth in their two million years at the top of the food chain, only a few dozen specimens have been found.

Dinosaurs “represent ultimate scarcity, but most importantly they allow us a glimpse into the past and hence are an invaluable tool to understand the origin of life on this planet,” says Angermayer.

While the dealers and auction houses are trying to widen the fossil-investing pantheon, for now there’s an established financial hierarchy among these ancient reptiles: The ones you’ll recall from science class or the Jurassic Park movies cost the most.

“What really drives the price for these types of specimens is: Do you recognize the name?” says Hatton from Sotheby’s. “Also the cool factor, if [buyers] have someone come to their home or they are telling somebody else about it, they want to make sure the broadest number of people are going to be impressed.”

Ferocious carnivores fetch more than genteel herbivores, and you won’t be surprised to learn buyers typically skew male.  

When asked by a Berlin newspaper in 2015 why he’d purchased a T. rex rather than a collection of Ferraris, London-based entrepreneur and tech investor Niels Nielsen said art and scientific relics interested him much more than cars.

The jury’s out on whether they are a good investment, in part because no two specimens are directly comparable. Adjusted for inflation, the price of T. rexes sold at auction increased around 135% between 1997 and 2020, which is much less than the appreciation of gold in the same period.

While other fossils have enjoyed more significant value gains, some recent sales have been disappointing. A T. rex skull sold at Sotheby’s in December for $6.1 million, far below the $15 million to $20 million estimate, while the partial skull of a triceratops achieved just £95,000 ($122,000) at Christie’s in May, or roughly one-quarter of the expected price.

Buyers may have become skittish after Christie’s withdrew a T. rex from sale in Hong Kong in November amid concerns parts of the skeleton were cast from another specimen.

A fossil is considered high-quality if half of the original bones are intact. But rather unhelpfully, there’s no industry standard for expressing how much of a skeleton is real. Incomplete fossils may be supplemented with cast elements and sometimes skeletons are composites of several individuals. Documentation is crucial in fossil collecting.

“Iconic dinosaur fossils with irrefutable provenance and truthful account of their condition look amazing when displayed properly and are still grossly undervalued,” insists Salomon Aaron, a director at London antiquities gallery David Aaron, which sold a herbivorous Camptosaurus for around £1 million ($1.3 million) at last year’s Frieze Masters fair in London.

Dinosaurs are often made available by their new owners to researchers or put on public display. Big John, a $7.7 million triceratops acquired at auction in 2021 by Florida entrepreneur Sidd Pagidipati, is now on show at the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa; Nielsen’s T. rex is housed in the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde, while Angermayer says he is in discussions with several museums to make his collection available to the public.

However, this doesn’t go far enough for many scientists and academic journals who insist specimens must be accessible in perpetuity, so research can still be verified decades later.

I think both sides should be more flexible and cooperative. Academics or museums rejecting fossils just because they are privately owned seems bizarre. And by all means buy a dinosaur, but for goodness’ sake, don’t keep it locked away in your home.

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To contact the author of this story:

Chris Bryant at [email protected]

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