How much would you pay for your very own dinosaur skeleton? For one recent auction bidder, the answer is more than a million euros!

The skeleton of an Allosaurus sold for over a million euros in the French city of Lyon this past weekend. Image: France 3 Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes/YouTube

This past Saturday, a 7.5-metre-long (25ft) Allosaurus named Kan went up for auction in Lyon, France, and the anonymous winning bidder took it for €1.1 million ($1.2 million). This is surely an exciting win for the buyer, but big dinosaur purchases tend to stir up tension in the scientific community.

Kan the Allosaurus is certainly not the first big-ticket dinosaur to hit the auction block. Fossils priced at over a million pounds (or dollars) regularly make headlines – from this year's tyrannosaur fossils to the two-for-one pair of "duelling dinosaurs" from a few years ago, and the famous T. rex "Sue" of the late 1990s.

From a palaeontologist's perspective, high-priced fossil sales can be a big loss. Oftentimes, a rare or important fossil, which might be crucial to answering questions about ancient creatures and ecosystems, can end up disappearing into someone's private collection, out of scientists' reach. Thankfully, reports say the buyer who purchased Kan intends to put the big carnivore up on public display – but things don't always work out that nicely.

This Allosaurus is on display at the San Diego Museum of Natural History. Hopefully, Kan will be available for public and scientific viewing as well. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Take, for example, the case of an intriguing and controversial fossil named Tetrapodophis. Scientists initially identified it last year as an ancient four-legged snake, but others have hotly disputed this claim. All sides agree that this is an important fossil in the story of snake and lizard evolution, and that future study is still needed. Unfortunately, the specimen is privately owned, and was recently removed from public display. Whatever secrets it might hold are now locked away.

Steven Jasinski, Acting Curator of Palaeontology and Geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, has dealt with similar issues while working with a dinosaur named Dracorex. Some have suggested that this small, two-legged plant-eater is actually the juvenile stage of another dinosaur – the famous bone-headed Pachycephalosaurus.

Several Dracorex skulls have been discovered, notes Jasinski, but all except one are in private collections, so whatever information they have to tell us about dinosaur life history is off-limits to scientists. "Even though it would undoubtedly help determining whether these are juveniles or not, we don't have the specimens, so we can't say anything about them," he explains.

Many palaeontologists have fine working relationships with private fossil owners and commercial collectors who are happy to support the work that scientists do, but contrasting priorities can lead to disputes and controversy. For the scientists, it's important that fossils be collected and cared for professionally, and that important specimens remain available for study and public education. On the other hand, collectors value their right to own and sell the fossils they've worked to acquire.

The most worrisome consequence of big sales like Kan is that they encourage the growth of an expensive fossil marketplace. This can lead to more and more rare and significant fossils being priced well out of reach of scientific institutions. "Most museums are not doing incredibly well financially," Jasinski notes. "They have money to prepare and care for the fossils, but they don't have excess money to buy fossils."

Sue T_rex skeleton_2016_12_14.jpg
Sue, the famous T. rex, was bought for over $8 million, the most ever paid for a dinosaur, after a lengthy legal dispute. Image: Connie Ma, Wikimedia Commons

At its worst, the fossil market can create some very serious problems. With the promise of a high pay-off, some irresponsible collectors may resort to forgeries that cause confusion and frustration, as in the famous case of the hodgepodge fossil "Archaeoraptor". Others may violate international laws to obtain the fossils they sell: last year, actor Nicolas Cage agreed to return a dinosaur skull he'd purchased when it was revealed to have been smuggled illegally out of Mongolia.

For these reasons, many palaeontologists condemn the sale of fossils. The Society for Vertebrate Palaeontology even has this sentiment written into its bylaws. But most scientists and commercial fossil hunters are not blind to each other's dilemmas. The best scenario for both sides would be a compromise that allows scientists to access all the fossils they need to and gives private collectors the recognition and compensation they earn.

Palaeontologist Kevin Padian has addressed some of these issues in an editorial on the topic: "[P]rofessional palaeontologists have to work to ensure that fossil specimens are appropriately valued and conserved. They also have to be realistic about the business world ... In turn, commercial collectors have to see more than dollar signs in nature. These resources are finite, and they are irreplaceable. Last, but not least, these facts must be conveyed to the public at every opportunity."

Jasinski, too, stresses the importance of scientists communicating with the public, noting that for a beneficial arrangement to be reached, palaeontologists need to convey just how significant fossils are for investigating and understanding nature. "I would hope that we could convince people of the scientific value of these items, and that the potential acquisition of new knowledge would win out over monetary value."


Top header image: Cedric Santarromana, Flickr