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Paleontologists Say Wyoming Fossil Sold In Paris Is Part Of Worrisome Trend

The fossilized skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur, excavated on private property in Wyoming, sold for more than $2 million at an auction in Paris.

The fossil skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur recently found in Wyoming was just auctioned off in Paris. Paleontologists are worried the sale is part of a trend that will keep specimens from our region out of the hands of scientists.

One of those worried paleontologists is David Polly, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Polly wrote a letter to the French auction house asking them to please not sell the dinosaur to private collectors.

In response, he says, “They suggested that perhaps we should get some wealthy donors and attend the auction ourselves and try to buy it.”

Polly did not manage to marshal a group of donors for an urgent Paris trip. The 30-foot-long fossil skeleton sold for more than $2 million.

The auction house claimed it could be a new species. Polly says that might be true, though it’s impossible to tell if paleontologists can’t access it.

He says he understands why someone would want to buy specimens like this one.

“They’re beautiful, exciting, wonderful things,” he says, but they are not objects of art. “A painting is something that was created by a person for the purpose of selling and going into a collection, whereas a fossil is often a quite unique part of our collective past, the history of the Earth, and in that sense it’s fundamentally different. It is relevant to all of us.”

He added that our region is known for producing specimens like this one from about 150 million years ago -- specimens that, as he wrote in his letter to the auction house Aguttes, could be “lost to science” if auctions like these continue to price museums and scientists out of the market. Polly says such auctions have been increasing.

“Yes, they seem to be. Certainly, over last 30 years they have become more common,” he says.

As Nature reported, other countries including China and Mongolia have laws that prevent such fossils from leaving their borders. But in the U.S. it’s finders-keepers when it comes to fossils found on private property rather than public land.

“The USA is now, basically, the only place where it’s possible to obtain dinosaur skeletons to sell legally on a regular basis,” Paul Barrett, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London told Nature.

In the U.S., property owners can do what they want with artifacts found on their land -- even sell them off to the highest bidder at an auction under the Eiffel Tower, which is exactly what happened in this case.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.
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