Apex, the largest Stegosaurus fossil ever found, goes to auction

In May 2022, Jason Cooper, a commercial paleontologist, went for a walk with a friend on his property near the aptly named town of Dinosaur, Colorado and discovered a piece of femur protruding from a rock.

That femur led to a stegosaurus fossil, one of the largest and most complete ever found, which was subsequently nicknamed ‘Apex’. In July, Sotheby’s auction house will sell Apex at auction for an estimated value of $4 million to $6 million, making the skeleton the latest flashpoint in a long-running debate over the private fossil trade.

Dinosaur fossils have fetched rising prices at auction houses since 1997, when Sotheby’s sold ‘Sue’ the Tyrannosaurus rex to the Field Museum in Chicago for $8.36 million. In 2020, ‘Stan’, another mostly complete T. rex skeleton, sold at Christie’s for $31.8 million.

Such prices have raised serious concerns among academic paleontologists, says Stuart Sumida, vice president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Many of them have seen in recent decades how fossils that could unlock scientific mysteries ended up in the hands of wealthy private collectors rather than research institutions.

Mr Cooper and his colleagues unearthed the Sotheby’s-bound stegosaurus in 2023. Excavations on his property have yielded a number of Jurassic-era dinosaurs, several of which Mr. Cooper has donated to institutions such as the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology in Provo, Utah. and the Frost Museum of Science in Miami.

Mr Cooper described the Apex stegosaurus as a unique and scientifically important specimen. Skeletons – even partial ones – of the plate-backed, spiny-tailed herbivore are rare. The skeletal support contains material from about 70 percent of the animal’s bones. At 3.5 meters long and over 6 meters long, Apex is twice the size of ‘Sophie’, the most intact stegosaurus specimen known, and has unusual proportions, remarkably long legs and square baseplates.

The specimen was also discovered with skin impressions, possibly from the neck, which will be included in the sale.

Mr Cooper oversaw the preparation and assembly of the stegosaurus, scanning the existing bones in 3D and mirroring elements of the specimen to fill in the gaps. The team also collected extensive contextual data, which they believe could be attractive to potential buyers. The information includes a detailed site survey, quarry maps and other documentation

Mr. Cooper also invited several paleontologists to examine the specimen.

“If you combine size, completeness and bone preservation, it’s the best stegosaurus I’ve ever seen,” said Rod Scheetz, curator at the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology, who inspected it at Mr. Cooper’s place.

Cassandra Hatton, head of Sotheby’s science and popular culture department, said the auction house was working closely with Mr Cooper to strengthen the scientific legitimacy of this privately sold dinosaur animal, with the aim of creating a model for future auctions.

“This is the first time a specimen has been auctioned where we have worked together since it was excavated,” she said. “This is the most transparent sale of a dinosaur that has ever taken place.”

But Jim Kirkland, Utah’s state paleontologist, declined to endorse the stegosaurus when invited by Mr. Cooper. “It looks pretty interesting,” he wrote in an email, “but I’m not going to promote anything that’s going up for auction. I would have linked it directly to museums, but not this.”

While anything can happen at a public auction, Mr. Cooper and Ms. Hatton both expressed hope that Apex will eventually end up in the hands of a scientific institution – either through outright purchase or donation from a private collector. The team collected the data and documentation not only to reassure potential buyers about the authenticity of the specimens, but also to help museums smoothly integrate such a specimen into a research collection.

“Whoever buys this also has the right to come to my property and collect contextual information,” Mr Cooper said. “A private collector might not think anything about that, but for a museum that would be really cool.”

However, the stegosaurus’ potential price tag could be out of reach for many institutions, said Dr. Sumida. He said the cost of studying an already assembled and reconstructed example could be more than just the purchase price. Reconstructing and mounting fossils is as much art as it is science – and specific choices can be used to mislead the uninitiated by blurring the lines about which parts of a given bone are real.

“If the specimen is as scientifically important as it is claimed to be, then they are handling it all in the wrong way,” said Dr. Sumida.

Cary Woodruff, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Frost Museum of Science in Miami, agreed that public auctions were often “scientific abbatoirs.” But Dr. Woodruff – who also examined the specimen before the auction deal – suggested that collecting detailed data, photographs and digital scans of commercially sold fossils is something other sellers should emulate. That way, “at least a remnant of the scientific data can survive if the specimen does not end up in the public trust,” he said.

Ultimately, Dr. Woodruff, however, agrees that the public trust is where such fossils belong.

“If a wealthy person were interested in how he could collaborate with a scientific institution to contribute to scientific knowledge and progress,” he said, “then I hope such specimens would catch their attention.” ‘

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