When a T-Rex fossil was sold to an anonymous buyer in 2020, palaeontologists worried that the skeleton could be lost to science. Eighteen months later, the fossil has reappeared. But is it good news for researchers?
In October 2020, a 13-foot tall, 39-foot long giant was auctioned off at Christie’s in New York
“This majestic masterpiece who is 67 million years old is the king of the dinosaurs and is our final lot for this evening.”Christie’s auction, October 2020
Up for sale was a T-rex skeleton.
And it went for a record-breaking 31 point 8 million dollars – making it the most expensive fossil ever sold.
The T-Rex was named “Stan” after the person who first discovered it in the 90s: an amateur fossil hunter called Stan Sacrison.
For years, the original Stan has been on display at a private research centre in South Dakota called the Black Hills Institute.
Stan is a really important specimen, because he’s one of the most complete T-Rex skeletons ever found, so scientists have studied him intensely.
And the Black Hills Institute made casts of his bones to sell to other museums so the public could see him too.
If you’ve ever been to the Manchester Museum… or to the natural history museum in Washington DC… or maybe the one in Tokyo… You’ve probably seen a replica of Stan, towering over the other exhibits.
So when the Black Hills Institute put Stan up for auction a couple of years ago, it was an exciting moment for palaeontologists.
They hoped he might be sold to a museum so that Stan would be more accessible for study – and seen by more members of the public.
But when it came to the sale, things didn’t seem to turn out that way….
“Auction: For $27 million 500 thousand dollars….And sold.RTE new clip
Presenter: With the auction house clawing in costs and commissions, the final price tag was a staggering $31.8 million dollars”.
The result of the auction was concerning for scientists.
Stan was bought by an anonymous bidder, so no one knew where he was going. He might end up hidden away in a private collection somewhere.
And because of his high price tag, their hopes that Stan had gone to a museum seemed faint. What museum could possibly afford such a vast amount of money?
Palaeontologists like Dr Brian Curtice of the Arizona Museum of Natural History could only hope that he’d turn up in a place they could access:
“For the rest of the palaeontologists in the world let’s hope it ends up somewhere that if you’re a theropod guy you want to study it and if you’re just a dinosaur fan in general you want to be able to see it it’d be disappointing to hear it get sequestered away in a house somewhere.”Dr Brian Curtice, Fossil Crates YouTube channel
For nearly 18 months, Stan’s whereabouts were unknown. But there was a lot of speculation about who might have bought him.
“Interviewer: You got a T-rex behind you. What is that?
Dwayne Johnson: I’ve got a T-rex skull, yes. That’s Stan.”Inside Edition, news clip
When the actor and wrestling star Dwayne Johnson appeared on a video call earlier this year with a massive T-rex skull in the background.. people wondered if maybe he’d bought the skeleton.
But he said, no, it was just another replica of Stan. If he had the real thing, he wouldn’t keep it in his house.
So, the mystery continued…
But then, in March, Stan reappeared:
“A mystery of colossal proportions solved this morning as the fate of Stan the T-rex has finally been revealed.”ABC News, news clip
Michael Greshko, a journalist at National Geographic magazine, looked into US export documents, and found that Stan had been sent by plane to Abu Dhabi in May of 2021.
Officials in the United Arab Emirates confirmed that they had bought Stan to be the centrepiece of Abu Dhabi’s new natural history museum.
And that news is a relief to most palaeontologists.
The museum will be open to the public, so Stan won’t be locked away as people feared.
And officials from Abu Dhabi have said that they want people from far and wide to come and see the collections at the new museum.
Here’s the chairman of Abu Dhabi’s ministry of culture and tourism speaking to CNN:
“The last thing we want is for these amazing objects to be sitting in private hands for nobody to view. You want school children from all over to come and experience this, you want people from all over the world to experience Stan, to experience the vast collection of objects that the Natural History Museum is going to have.”Mohammed al Mubarak, speaking to CNN
The UAE does pose some problems for scientists from other countries wanting to study Stan.
On Twitter, Michael Greshko – that National Geographic journalist – he made the point that the country scores badly in terms of academic freedom. Yes, it’s probably less of a worry for palaeontologists than, say, a political scientist – but the restrictions on freedom of speech could put researchers off from going there.
And the place where the natural history museum is going to be – Saadiyat Island – has been at the centre of numerous human rights scandals during its construction.
But overall, the fact that Stan will be on display is good news for the public and researchers.
It’s also good for the region too, because many major museums and artefacts are in Western countries rather than the Middle East, Asia or Africa.
The museum doesn’t open until 2025 so you’ve still got to wait a few years to see him… but in the meantime, you can enjoy the many replica Stans around the world.
Today’s episode was written and mixed by Ella Hill.