T. rex ‘Frankenstein’ auction in Europe sparks criticism – 03/18/2023 – Science
Announced with great media attention, the first auction of a tyrannosaurus rex in Europe, set to take place in Switzerland on April 18, drew criticism from paleontologists from around the world and reignited the debate on the ethical and scientific issues of the trade in fossils.
Traces of prehistoric animals, especially rare specimens like the T. rex, have been auctioned off for increasingly high sums, which ends up excluding a large part of the planet’s museums and universities from the competition.
Often sold to wealthy private collectors, specimens of high scientific and cultural importance —and all the knowledge they could generate— run the risk of becoming inaccessible to researchers.
The record value in negotiations of this type belongs precisely to a tyrannosaurus rexnamed Stan, which sold at an auction conducted by Christie’s for US$31.8 million (about R$178.9 million) in 2020.
According to the scientists, the millionaire figures end up encouraging a race for exploration based only on the financial question. While in Brazil the commercial exploitation and sale of fossils is prohibited by law, there are countries, such as the United States and several European nations, where these activities are allowed.
In the USA, there are teams of professional “fossil hunters”, interested in discovering the most valuable specimens.
“There are a series of problems in the fossil trade”, says Aline Ghilardi, a professor at UFRN (Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte) with extensive research and work on the subject.
In addition to restrictions on access to species that end up in private collections, the scientist points out that there are serious problems even with the specimens that remain in research institutions, such as incorrect or incomplete information about the places of origin.
“In recent years, even paleontologists in Canada and the United States, places where there was normally no problem selling or doing any kind of barter with fossils, have begun to worry more about the issue, because they know that it could start disturbing their research”, he says.
Ghilardi also points out that there are many incentives for sellers to fake or adulterate fossils to inflate transaction prices. “These are the rules of capitalism. People want to increase the added value of their specimens and, for that, they can play dirty. For example, they can take parts of different fossils and put them all together. They are more beautiful, but in the eyes of science they are a freak. That’s all they’re good for, as decoration.”
It was precisely a suspicion of tampering with the skull that suspended, last year, the auction of a T. rex named Shen at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Even if this situation was discovered before the negotiation, there are several examples in which the modifications go unnoticed at the time of purchase.
In 2013, it was revealed that the CosmoCaixa museum in Barcelona was displaying a completely adulterated Brazilian pterosaur. Research indicated that, although it was acquired by the museum as a specimen of a anhanguera fishermanthere were no bones of this species in the material on display.
It was, in fact, a collage of fossils of different animals, assembled to appear to be one. An imaging examination also showed that some segments were not even fossil material, but small pieces of painted plastic.
Despite the shock of the revelation, part of the national scientific community saw a positive side in the embarrassment. In addition to exposing the problems of adulteration, it showed the risks of international trafficking in these materials, since the sale of Brazilian fossils is prohibited, although it happens with relative frequency in Europe and the USA.
For some scientists, the tyrannosaurus rex to be auctioned in April in Switzerland is also considered a tamper. The skeleton is formed by joining the bones of three different specimens of T. rex. The situation, however, was highlighted in the animal’s sales material, which even received the name of Trinity (trinity) to highlight this point.
Most of the axial skeleton and the pelvic region is composed of one specimen excavated in 2013. Another animal, discovered in 2012, completes the skeletal details. The skull is from a third dinosaur, which also provided some other small parts. In all, the mounted T. rex is 11.6 meters long and 3.9 meters high.
For that reason, University of Edinburgh professor Steve Brusatte has called the skeleton “a Frankenstein rex”, but considers the material to have its relevance.
“Nevertheless, these fossils are rare and scientifically important. And I feel they rightly belong in a museum, where they can be safely kept, studied by scientists and inspire children and audiences of all ages,” Brusatte said in an interview with The Independent.
One of the largest predators that ever crossed the Earth, weighing up to 8 tons, the T. rex lived between 65 and 67 million years ago in the region that is now North America. Despite its size, its fossils are rare. According to a 2021 survey, only 32 adult specimens have been discovered so far.
In addition to the rarity of the material, the Koller auction house also lists the beauty and quality of the skeletal restoration. “First you have to stabilize all the bones, which after 65 million years need some treatment. This involves a lot of glue, as the bones are extracted from a large rock, which we call the matrix”, says Yolanda Schicker-Siber of the Museum of Dinosaurs from Aathal, Switzerland, one of those responsible for preparing the dinosaur, in the auction’s promotional material.
“Imagine taking something broken out of a package: once the surrounding rock [do osso] is removed, it falls apart, so you must stabilize it immediately after removing some of the matrix. This process starts at the excavation site and ends in the lab, where you finally dip each bone in an acrylic bath, which takes care of the invisible cracks,” she adds.
Responsible for the sale, the Koller auction house does not reveal the current owner, limiting itself to informing that the material is part of a private collection in the United States.
In 1997, the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, had the support of several institutions, such as the State University of California and Disney, to gather the US$ 8.3 million used to buy the specimen. The valuable Stan, sold in 2020, will be destined for the Abu Dhabi Museum of Natural History, in the United Arab Emirates, which is scheduled to open in 2025.
Origin: USA, Hell Creek formation
Discovered in 1992
Auctioned in 2020 for $31.8 million
Buyer: Abu Dhabi Museum of Natural History, not yet open
Origin: USA, South Dakota
Discovered in 1990
Auctioned in 1997 for $8.3 million
Buyer: Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago with funding from various entities including California State University, Walt Disney and MacDonald’s