Where art and science meet, there are dinosaurs. It can be a murky business.

Between movie stars, drug cartels, auction houses and artists chasing ‘stolen’ fossils, is science being monopolised out of the dinosaur trade?  

By Dominic Bliss
Published 11 Aug 2022, 08:00 BST
Gallery of Extraordinary Objects curator Carla Nizzola plants a kiss on the skull of a Triceratops ...

Gallery of Extraordinary Objects curator Carla Nizzola plants a kiss on the skull of a Triceratops that forms the centrepiece of the Connor Brothers' exhibition Some Of My Best Friends Are Dinosaurs. 

Photograph by Paul Quezada-Neiman / Alamy

ON A TRIP TO ARIZONA two and a half years ago, British artists The Connor Brothers fell in love with a fossil dinosaur called Theo. Hook, line and sinker. It was at the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, in Arizona, back in January 2020, just before the first pandemic lockdown.

After showing their own artworks at an exhibition nearby, the two British artists (real names Mike Snelle and James Golding) had stumbled upon a fossil dealer offering the skeleton – nearly three metres long – of a small herbivore from the late Cretaceous period called a Thescelosaurus. Unearthed in South Dakota, it was a beautiful specimen, 85 per cent complete, its bones positioned as if it was running. To the untrained eye it looked a little like a Velociraptor, only without the sharp teeth. Mike and James both knew immediately they had to have it. The only problem was the price tag: $300,000 (£247,000).

The Connor Brothers – Mike Snelle (left) and James Golding – with 'Theo' the Thescelosaurus in Arizona. It would be as close to the dinosaur they bought as they would get. 

Photograph by The Connor Brothers

“We definitely didn’t go there with the intention of buying anything,” Snelle told National Geographic UK. “But then we saw the Thescelosaurus, or Theo as it was called, and we got terribly excited about it. We realised we couldn’t afford it.”

The dealer allowed The Connor Brothers to pay for Theo in instalments over the following year. By February 2021, they had settled in full. “As we got towards the final payment, we tried to get hold of the guy… and nothing,” Mike remembers. “We couldn’t get hold of anyone. Someone stole our dinosaur.”

$300,000 out of pocket, Snelle and Golding were, understandably, more than a little peeved. Then followed an increasingly desperate six-month mission to track down their missing dinosaur.

Celebrities, drugs and dinosaurs

Their first lead was an investigator in New York City who had once worked for the FBI. The picture he painted of the murky trade in dinosaur fossils and the roguish characters involved was not a pretty one. It was suggested to the artists that their Thescelosaurus had been smuggled across the border into Mexico and had become the property of the boss of an infamous drug cartel.

Then they were introduced to a lawyer who had represented “a major figure” in said cartel. He told them it was a ridiculous suggestion. “He laughed at us,” Snelle remembers. “He said the cartel boss would never buy a herbivore; he’d buy something like a T-rex. So that was 100 per cent a dead end.”

At the Drouot auction centre in Paris, bidders gather to make offers on an Allosaurus. Auctions such as this, many believe, are pushing up the prices of dinosaurs bought by private collectors, pricing museums and academic institutions out of the market.  

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti and Juri De Luca, National Geographic Image Collection

Their next line of investigation led rather improbably to the New Zealand actor Russell Crowe, and the head of a large marine reptile. “He’d bought a mosasaur skull off Leo DiCaprio,” Snelle explains. For a short while Snelle and Golding believed they’d been gazumped by Crowe on their purchase of Theo the Thescelosaurus. They emailed his agent, but no response. Another dead end. 

At one point they even ended up flying to Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia, in search of their precious fossil. That proved to be yet another wild goose chase.

As the plot thickened, Snelle and Golding quickly realised just how lucrative the global market in dinosaur fossils was. “We’ve always loved dinosaurs,” they explained in a press statement. “But now we really f****** love dinosaurs.”

As do many of the world’s wealthiest art collectors. The global trade in these fossils is booming right now, thanks in no small part to the sale of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Stan. In October 2020, Stan (many near-complete dinosaur fossils are given human nicknames) sold at Christie’s auction house in New York City for $31.8 million (£26 million) – the highest amount ever paid at auction for any fossil.

“[The lawyer] laughed at us. He said the cartel boss would never buy a herbivore; he’d buy something like a T. rex.”

Mike Snelle

It’s the T. rex which commands the most monstrous prices. In 1990, Sue, a 90 per cent complete specimen excavated in South Dakota, sold for $8.36 million (£6.7 million). But other species are popular, too, especially if their skulls or skeletons are near complete. In 2007, the American actor Nicholas Cage bought the skull of a Mongolian Tarbosaurus (another tyrannosaurid) from a Los Angeles gallery for $270,000 (£220,000). Unbeknownst to Cage, the specimen had been removed from Mongolia illegally: the actor later returned it. 

That same year, an Allosaurus and a Stegosaurus positioned in combat sold for $2.75 million (£2.2 million). Other lucrative sales have included a Diplodocus called Misty, a Hypacrosaurus called Freya, a Thescelosaurus called Maximus, and a Triceratops called Big John.

An obligation to science? 

But these fossils are very much bones of contention. While they earn huge amounts of money for the fossil hunters who find them (and arguably would lie undiscovered if this wasn’t the case) many within the scientific community are outraged. Should an important specimen end up adorning a rich person’s living-room, it deprives scientists of the opportunity to examine it, potentially forever.

Dr Susannah Maidment is principal researcher in fossil reptiles at London’s Natural History Museum. She explains how highly publicised auctions of expensive skeletons ­– like Stan, the $31.8 million (£25 million) T. rex – result in pricing scientific institutions out of the market.  

“There’s absolutely no way we can afford these specimens,” she tells National Geographic UK. “It’s vastly more than our acquisition budgets are.”

Resurrection, a sculpture of Jesus Christ made by fossil hunter and sculptor Alan Detrich. The sculpture features the partical skeleton of a mosasaur and the figure is crafted from fragmented dinosaur bones, including those of a T. rex. Detrich made headlines in 2019 for listing what was believed to be the world's only baby T. rex fossil, ’Son of Samson’, on eBay for $2.3 million. 

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti and Juri De Luca, National Geographic Image Collection

Maidment worries that vital fossils will end up in collectors’ attics instead of under the gaze of scientists’ microscopes. She cites the example of the Maxberg Archaeopteryx, a rare fossil of the world’s first known feathered bird, unearthed in a German quarry in the 1950s, briefly studied by palaeontologists, but then stashed away at the home of its notoriously unyielding owner, Eduard Opitsch. When Opitsch died in 1991, the Archaeopteryx was nowhere to be found. Had it been destroyed, or stolen? Some even suggested it might have been entombed with its owner. Its whereabouts remain unknown.

Maidment explains that, in the UK, there are no laws restricting fossil collection, only guidelines. “It’s all down to the landowner,” she says. “In places where we have erosion of the cliffs, and fossils coming out onto the beach, anybody can pick them up.” In theory, should anyone dig up a complete Baryonyx or Iguanadon skeleton in their back garden, they would be free to keep it for themselves.

Nonetheless, she certainly doesn’t wish to discourage amateur collectors from fossil hunting. “They’re playing a vital role. If amateur enthusiasts weren’t out in places like the Isle of Wight and the Dorset Coast, collecting invertebrate fossils that are weathering out, we would be losing these specimens. At the Natural History Museum, we don’t have the time, the resources or the facilities to do that. But the amateur collectors do. And the last thing we should be doing is discouraging children from walking along the beach and picking up fossils. That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.” Indeed, she remembers doing exactly that as a young girl herself.

A cast of the infamous lost Maxberg Archaeopteryx lithographica fossil, the location of which – possibly literally – the German magnate took to his grave.

Photograph by H. Raab / Wikimedia Commons

However, Maidment would like to see a change in the law, in order to preserve important specimens for scientific research; something akin to the Treasure Act 1996, which obliges amateur archaeologists and metal detectorists to report any treasure they find, offering it for sale to museums at an independently officiated price. 

“When amateurs find something, there should be some sort of rule where they take it to their local museum, register it, and check if it’s significant,” she says – stressing that this is her personal opinion, not that of the Natural History Museum.

She points out how British fossil collectors mostly adhere to a code of conduct (established by three bodies – UK Fossils, Discovering Fossils and the United Kingdom Association of Fossil Hunters) encouraging them to report important finds to local museums.

“I would go one step further,” she adds. “If someone with knowledge says this is a specimen that is scientifically important, the museum should have first refusal.”

The Natural History Museum, for example, recently purchased fossils of a new type of Iguanodon, found on the Isle of Wight, and an Ankylosaur from a private collector in Kent. “The prices we are paying recompenses the collectors for their time, resources and hard work in digging up specimens and preparing them,” she says, although she isn’t able to reveal the amounts paid.

Stan, arguably already the world's most famous T. rex before the auction that made it infamous, is exhibited at Christie's before the auction that saw it fetch $31.8 million in October 2020. Scientists feared this might be the last they saw of the near-complete dinosaur; it recently resurfaced as the intended lead attraction at a new museum of natural history in Abu Dhabi.   

Photograph by UPI / Alamy

Naturally, some fossils are far more scientifically important than others. “It might be a skeleton which shows us a particular type of behaviour,” Maidment explains. “A mother and baby next to each other, for example, or a nest with embryos in it. Or a dinosaur with an egg in its oviduct.”

Past unlocking the future

Crucially, in the future, palaeontologists might develop new methods of studying fossils, just as forensic scientists re-examine decades-old evidence from unsolved crimes. Maidment suggests the study of soft tissue remnants could prove possible. And fossils discovered decades ago can now be re-assessed using CT scanners.

“Studying palaeontology has never been more important than it is today,” she says, becoming very animated. “If we want to understand how the world is going to change as a result of global warming; or how diseases and their vectors might spread as a result of climate change, then we need empirical evidence on which to base our predictions.”

Fossils give us a record of how species underwent mass extinctions and subsequent recoveries in the distant past, and suggest how climate change affected our evolutionary ancestors. “By studying palaeontology, we can gather evidence that will allow us to make predictions about how the Earth will change in the future,” Maidment adds. “That’s why it’s critical.”

Dr Susannah Maidment examines the only known skull of a Proceratosaurus bradleyi at the Natural History Museum, London. 

Photograph by Paolo Verzone

Fossils on the Isle of Wight provide particularly relevant examples. Maidment says there was a purported mass extinction event at the end of the Jurassic period, around 145 million years ago. Rock strata found across Southern England – called the Wealden Group – documents an era shortly after this period. “By studying the dinosaur and fauna in these rocks, we can understand how eco-systems recovered after this mass extinction event,” she says. (Related: How – and why – this 130 million year-old dinosaur was 3-D scanned.)

Inevitably, though, the interests of science clash against the interests of cold, hard economics. Auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s regularly sell ancient fossils. In July 2022, Sotheby’s announced the auction of  “an extremely rare fossil of a Gorgosaurus”, a tyrannosaurid predator from the late Cretaceous period, in New York City. The pre-auction buzz indicated that this was “the first time a Gorgosaurus specimen will appear at auction”; There are thought to be only 20 specimens known to science. National Geographic UK asked Sotheby’s whether there was a risk the sale might deprive scientists of the opportunity to study the specimen; the company declined to respond. On July 24th the Gorgosaurus sold for $6.1 million (£5 million) to an anonymous bidder.

The Gorgosaurus specimen that sold at Sotheby's New York for $6.1 million (£5 million) in July 2022.

Photograph by UPI / Alamy

One of the world’s leading palaeontology groups campaigning against the commercial sale of important dinosaur fossils is the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, based in Maryland, USA. In recent years they have attempted to dissuade various auction houses – in Paris, New York and online on Amazon and eBay – from selling fossils of dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus, Camptosaurus, Triceratops and Deinonychus.

Scientifically important vertebrate fossils are part of our collective natural heritage and deserve to be held in public trust,” they state. “Scientific practice demands that conclusions drawn from the fossils should be verifiable: scientists must be able to re-examine, re-measure, and reinterpret them. (Such re-examination can happen decades or even centuries after their discovery). Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science. Even if made accessible to scientists, information contained within privately owned specimens cannot be included in the scientific literature because the availability of the fossil material to other scientists cannot be guaranteed, and therefore verification of scientific claims (the essence of scientific progress) cannot be performed.”

A collector of fossil ephemera displays an Icthyosaur in his home office. 

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti and Juri De Luca, National Geographic Image Collection

A collector poses with a mounted mosasaur skull. The fearsome appearance of this marine reptile – a relatively common specimen in the fossil record, and famous for its fictionally scaled-up persona in the Jurassic World films – have made them popular pieces for commercial buyers. 

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti and Juri De Luca, National Geographic Image Collection

It's not just real fossils that are the object of collectors' affections. Here, a cast of a Triceratops skull forms the centrepiece of a Louisiana home. 

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti and Juri De Luca, National Geographic Image Collection

Force for good

It is not always the case that collectors are against their dinosaurs being examined and exhibited; Titus, a 20% complete T. rex currently on display at Nottingham’s Wollaton Hall, was recently the subject of a full scientific report and Stan, the infamous T. rex that set the record for the most expensive fossil ever sold was recently announced as the star attraction at a new Abu Dhabi museum, with the hope continued scientific access to the specimen will be possible. The fear the sale may push up prices and restrict private digging rights to the highest bidders remains.   

The Connor Brothers are themselves involved in the sale of dinosaur fossils. Currently, at an art gallery in Cambridge called the Extraordinary Objects Gallery, they are curating an exhibition and sale of ancient fossils and meteorites – including a very impressive Triceratops skull – alongside their own paintings of dinosaurs. Running until early October, it’s called Some Of My Best Friends Are Dinosaurs.

However, they stress there are no fossils there of vital interest to science. There’s the skull of an Edmontosaurus and of a Mosasaur; an Ichthyosaur skeleton; a Chenanisaurus tooth; and multiple fish and ammonites.

Even the star attraction is not depriving scientists of vital research, they insist. “The Triceratops skull isn’t going to add to the sum of scientific knowledge on Triceratops,” Mike says. “It’s not the most complete skull. Nor a new species. It’s not of that kind of quality.” Even if they’d purchased Theo the Thescelosaurus, they point out that this is a common species, with little value to science.

Extraordinary Objects gallery curator Carla Nizzola cleans 'Ed', a 68 million- year-old skull of an Edmontonsaurus dinosaur that forms part of the Connor Brothers' exhibition in Cambridge. 

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Both Snelle and Golding believe that even commercial palaeontologists care more about science than money. “They’re not driving Lamborghinis and wearing Rolexes,” Snelle says. “These people are dinosaur geeks. If they discover something that can add to science, they will 100 per cent either donate it for scientific enquiry or sell it to a museum for a lesser price. These people love dinosaurs. They have a passion. They’re not digging around in the dust and the dirt because they want to buy a house in Miami. Dinosaur people are nice people.”

Perhaps The Connor Brothers are being too generous in their assessment. Their own ‘stolen’ dinosaur – Theo the Thescelosaurus – being the case in point that when it comes to owning a dinosaur, ethics can be compromised when desire or profit come into play.  

In the end, Theo never was tracked down. The Tucson dealer they originally purchased it from eventually contacted them and refunded their money in full, throwing in a free fossilised palm as an apology. 

A year and a half on, Mike and James believe they were simply outbid by a much wealthier collector. They think Theo might now be somewhere in Mexico. “We’d love to see it come up at auction,” James says. “The person who bought it might not have done anything wrong.

“Hopefully, they are altruistic, philanthropic, and caring about two humble artists,” he adds mischievously. “If they’re wealthy enough, they might agree to return it to us.”

Some Of My Best Friends Are Dinosaurs is at the Extraordinary Objects Gallery in Cambridge until October 2nd 2022.


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