In October of 2020, there was a hotly anticipated auction at Christie’s in New York City. It included paintings from some of history’s most venerated artists — Picasso, Rothko, Cézanne. But the lot that fetched the highest price was not a painting.
AUCTIONEER: Lot number 59…. Really?! Uh, twenty sev—
BIDDER: Yes, really. Twenty-seven one, please…
AUCTIONEER: We’re all waiting with baited breath. $27,100,000 …
BIDDER: Twenty-seven, five, please.
AUCTIONEER: We’ve come this far … okay $27,500,000 … fair warning, I’m happy to sell this … and … sold! Thank you very much.
The object on the block? A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named “Stan.” With fees, it went for just under $32 million dollars — more than five times its minimum estimated sale price.
For the man who helped discover Stan, it was validation of a job well done.
LARSON: Stan was 25,000 person hours. That’s a lot of work and, you know, somebody has to pay for that.
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: T. rex skeletons.
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You’ve probably seen a T. rex — or, at least, part of one — at a natural history museum. So how did it get there?
Well, if you want to find one in the ground, your best bet is to head to the Hell Creek Formation, a stretch of rock that runs through Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. It dates back to the Cretaceous age, which ended around 66 million years ago. The first documented T. rex discovery was made in the Hell Creek Formation in 1902. And nearly all of the T. rex excavated since then — that’s around 140 of them — were also found there.
A lot of that land is publicly owned. And, here in the United States, fossils on public land are protected by law — you need permission from the Bureau of Land Management to conduct searches. In most cases, you also have to be a credentialed scientist. Someone like —
CARR: Thomas Carr, Ph.D., Director of the Carthage Institute of Paleontology. I study the growth and evolution of Tyrannosaurus rex and its closest relatives.
Carr is one of the country’s foremost experts on Tyrannosaurus rex. And he is not in it for the money.
CARR: The purpose of collecting fossils on public land is to collect them for science and education. At no point is contact made with the market. You know, it would just defeat the purpose entirely.
When you find fossils on public land, you’re not allowed to sell them.
CARR: Once they’re out of the ground, they have to go into a public trust. At the end of each year, we are responsible for submitting a field report which includes a catalog of all the fossils that we found.
But a fossil found on private land — that’s a different story.
CARR: It’s really a free-for-all on private land. If a person finds a dinosaur, they can do whatever they want with it.
That includes selling it on the open market. At annual gatherings like the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, you’ll find dozens of fossil hunters selling things like Spinosaurus teeth and bone fragments of Triceratops. If you ask around, it won’t be long before you come across this guy.
LARSON: My name is Peter Larson. I’m president of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota — the place where museums go to shop for such strange things as dinosaur skeletons.
Larson started out in the ’70s, selling small fossils at trade shows. One day, that all changed.
LARSON: We were approached by a museum that said, “Can you get us a dinosaur skeleton?” And although I’d never found a dinosaur skeleton, I said, “Sure, of course we can.”
He ended up finding that dinosaur. And then he found a hell of a lot more of them. Specifically, T. rex skeletons.
LARSON: We’ve collected now, I think, we’re at number 13? That’s quite a few.
When Larson wants to go look for dinosaur bones, the first thing he has to do is get permission to conduct a search on private land. This involves cutting the ranch owner in on any future discoveries.
LARSON: We come up with a value based upon market prices at the time. That can be anywhere from 10 percent of something that’s hard to sell, to as much as 50 percent if you got a nice T. rex skeleton on your ground.
Fossil scouting isn’t as romantic as it sounds. Larson walks around for months over craggy terrain, his eye trained to the ground for the faintest bone fragments. Many times, he won’t find anything at all. When he does find evidence of a skeleton, he begins a lengthy and extremely intensive excavation process. From start to finish, getting a dinosaur fossil out of the ground and into a buyer’s hands can take two to three years.
LARSON: So let’s say it’s a T. rex skeleton— it’s a 40-foot-long skeleton. You’re going to have an investment of in excess of $1,000,000 to get that ready for exhibit.
Larson will strike a deal with a potential buyer before the fossil is removed. So, he has to approximate his overhead costs in advance.
LARSON: Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. We’ve done projects where we’ve actually lost money on them, just because we underestimated the amount of time it was going to take.
When everything goes smoothly, he nets a profit of around 20 percent of the sale price of the skeleton. Now, what a fossil commands on the market depends on a few factors: its size, its condition, and — most importantly — its completeness. There are around 380 bones in a T. rex skeleton. No one has ever found a fully intact specimen. But Larson came close.
On a scorching summer day in 1990, just outside the city of Faith, South Dakota, Larson and his team uncovered the most complete T. rex skeleton in history — 90 percent by bone volume. They named it Sue. Sue came with some drama. After the excavation, it came out that the fossil had actually been found on land that was part of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Federal agents seized it and a legal battle broke out. In the end, the landowner — a man named Maurice Williams who was a member of the Sioux tribe — was awarded full ownership. And he took the dinosaur straight to auction.
LARSON: Up to that point, no fossil had been sold for $1 million. All of a sudden, you know, it went to 2 million to 3 million to 4 million to 5 million, 7 million…
Sue sold for around $8.4 million dollars to the Field Museum in Chicago, with financing from corporate sponsors like McDonald’s and the Walt Disney Company. It was the start of a new age in the market for dinosaur fossils.
LARSON: Everybody said, “Huh! These fossils could be worth a lot of money.” It brought a number of what I call dinosaur dreamers into the business.
PHIPPS: I’m Clayton Phipps. And some folks call me The Dinosaur Cowboy. Before I became a fossil hunter, I was a cowboy. That’s all I’d ever really done.
Phipps grew up on a ranch in remote Montana. His family were homesteaders, going back generations, scraping a living off the land. But around the time Sue was discovered, he realized he might be sitting on a gold mine.
PHIPPS: A kid came by and asked if he could look for fossils. And it was right after the movie “Jurassic Park” came out dinosaur craze was high. It just really piqued my interest. And I started spending every free minute I had learning what I could about dinosaurs.
In 2003, he nabbed his first big find: the skull of a Stygimoloch, a rare horned dinosaur that roamed the North American plains around 70 million years ago.
PHIPPS: I ended up selling that. It gave me about a year’s wages, as to what I was making as a cowboy, to see if I could maybe quit my job and make fossil hunting more of a way to earn a living for my family. And I had to go out and find something, or we didn’t get to buy groceries.
A few years later, on a neighboring ranch, Phipps stumbled across the discovery of a lifetime: the remains of a young T. rex — and a Triceratops — entangled in a deadly brawl. Which raised a question: How, exactly, does an amateur paleontologist get a 20-ton fossil out of the ground?
PHIPPS: There were no YouTube videos out there on how to do it at that time, so we started out with some rancher ingenuity.
Phipps dug around the massive fossil, slipped a pallet underneath it, and dragged it down the road with a tractor trailer. While the excavation method was less than scientific, the fossil itself was one-of-a-kind.
But in the dinosaur market, even the best fossils can be hard to sell. And that’s because finding a buyer can be almost as hard as finding a dinosaur. That’s coming up.
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With a rare dinosaur fossil in hand, Clayton Phipps thought he’d have an easy sell.
PHIPPS: We went to most of the major museums in the U.S. and some overseas museums and tried to get somebody interested. And, you know, it kept me broke for years.
Phipps spent nearly two decades trying to sell his prized fossil. In 2020, he finally secured a buyer. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bought it for $6 million. After paying off the land owner and accounting for expenses, Phipps says the deal didn’t make landowner as he’d hoped.
PHIPPS: If I had a dollar for every step I’ve ever taken looking for a dinosaur — or even probably a dime — I may be better off. Now I’m back to, “Yup, let’s find another one!”
Peter Larson, our other fossil hunter, knows better than anyone that a big sale doesn’t always result in a big payday. Remember Stan, the dinosaur that fetched $31.8 million at Christie’s? It ended up in Abu Dhabi, where it will be the star of a new museum in a few years. Larson didn’t see a penny from that sale. In the years leading up to the auction, he had a dispute with his brother over the ownership of their company. They agreed on an unorthodox settlement: his brother got Stan’s bones; he kept the firm. But, he did get to keep the intellectual property rights to Stan.
LARSON: No two people prepare a bone the same. And, you know, there’s the artistry where you reconstruct, where you’re putting the pieces back together, where you’re creating the parts that are missing, it’s all art. And so we have a registered copyright, and we trademarked the name Stan.
Larson’s company now makes extremely accurate plastic casts of Stan, right down to the serrations in the teeth. Those casts have become his bread and butter.
LARSON: A Stan full mounted cast sells for $120,000. And then that’s plus whatever shipping and crating that would have to go with that.
CROCKETT: That’s a bargain compared to, you know, $32 million.
LARSON: Yeah, that’s right. Not everyone can afford a cast of Stan, but a lot more people can than afford an original Stan skeleton.
Larson says he has sold around 100 casts to museums all over the world. There are Stans in Washington D.C., Korea, Japan, India —
LARSON: — France, Spain, Germany, England. Stan is all over the place.
There are even a few Stans floating around in private homes. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a plastic Stan skull in his home office. It set him back around $12,000 bucks. And, if you take a boat down Lake Washington in Seattle and you peer into the glass atrium of one of the waterfront mansions, you might catch a glimpse of a full-scale Stan skeleton.
MYHRVOLD: People will say, “Well, how much did your cast cost?” Like they want to see how much money I blew on that. And I said, look, the truth of it is if you build a living room big enough to hold the dinosaur, that cost you way more than the dinosaur.
That’s Nathan Myhrvold. He was the first C.T.O. at Microsoft, he’s the founder of a private equity firm called Intellectual Ventures, and, as it happens, he’s also very into dinosaurs.
MYHRVOLD: Oh, yeah. I’ve got — so Archaeopteryx is a very famous fossil. I have a megalodon jaw. I have an ancient fish called xiphactinus, which is a fish that used to live in the inland sea.
Outside of museums, there aren’t many people willing to shell out big bucks for dinosaur fossils. But Myhrvold is one of them.
MYHRVOLD: The Wall Street Journal did an article on people collecting fossils a number of years ago. And at that point in time, they had identified three private individuals in the United States. And it was very funny because it was Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicolas Cage, and me.
But Myhrvold isn’t just a collector of fossils. He has accompanied paleontologists on digs. He’s written a number of peer-reviewed papers, including one on dinosaur vomit. And he’s played a critical role in funding scientific expeditions, which are chronically under-resourced.
MYHRVOLD: A huge amount of paleontology — it’s people spending $20,000 a year to take a few of their students on a camping trip for a couple of weeks in one place. One of the bigger line items: renting porta-potties for the campground.
For the past two decades, Myhrvold has granted around $500,000 per year to paleontologists. Those grants have resulted in at least 10 T. rex discoveries — all on public land, for academic research. It’s an effort to level the playing field for scientists, who simply can’t compete with the budgets of commercial fossil hunters. Thomas Carr, the paleontology professor in Wisconsin, says that the commercial market for dinosaurs has had a devastating impact on scientific research. He, and many other paleontologists, adhere to a code of ethics established by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. That code says they can only study fossils in the public trust. Anything sold on the open market is strictly off limits. And that’s a problem. Because, to date, more than 60 percent of all known T. rex fossils have been found by commercial fossil hunters.
CARR: It took only 33 years for the commercial folks to collect more T. rexes than the public trust collected in 130 years. It’s an existential threat: our natural heritage is just being auctioned off for top dollar. And that’s a problem for science, because to really understand nature, particularly organisms, we have to have a high sample size.
This problem is not exclusive to T. rex fossils.
CARR: Triceratops shows up on the market. Duckbill Dinosaurs. In the past year, a very rare example of a bird-like dinosaur called Dynonacus was auctioned to a private individual. And Dynonacus is known from very few specimens, like there’s only six or seven good ones. It’s gone — and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Commercial fossil hunters like Larson see it differently.
LARSON: The scientists should be happy that these other fossils are being saved, because you cannot leave a fossil in the ground and expect it to survive. I cannot fault someone for capitalizing an asset that they might have. And especially farmers and ranchers — they need to be paid for these things!
Last summer, after many fruitless searches, paleontologist Thomas Carr finally found something that had been eluding him for years: bone fragments from a rare juvenile T. rex. They may not be worth $32 million dollars — but the real value, he says, is what they can teach us about the inhabitants of the Cretaceous era. He hopes to return next year to look for a full skeleton. That is, unless someone else gets there first.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston.
MYHRVOLD: I mean, how many times do you get to meet the world’s foremost expert on dinosaur vomit?
CROCKETT: I mean…
CROCKETT: It’s truly an honor.
- “Mystery Solved: Stan, the T. Rex, Went to Abu Dhabi,” by Laura Zornosa (The New York Times, 2022).
- “Can I Keep This? A Guide to Collecting on Public Lands,” by the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (2021).
- “Dinosaur Cowboys Are Hunting for the Next $32 Million T. Rex,” by Andrew Zaleski (Bloomberg, 2021).
- “Perhaps the Best Dinosaur Fossil Ever Discovered. So Why Has Hardly Anyone Seen It?” by Phillip Pantuso (The Guardian, 2019).
- “SUE the T. rex,” by the Field Museum (2018).
- “The T. rex That Got Away: Smithsonian’s Quest for Sue Ends With Different Dinosaur,” by J. Freedom du Lac (The Washington Post, 2014).
- “A Call to Search for Fossilised Gastric Pellets,” by Nathan Myhrvold (Historical Biology, 2011).
- “Tyrannosaur Skeleton Is Sold to a Museum for $8.36 Million,” by Malcolm W. Browne (The New York Times, 1997).
- “Searching for Our Aquatic Ancestors,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Nathan Myhrvold: ‘I Am Interested in Lots of Things, and That’s Actually a Bad Strategy,'” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).