It may not be a Matisse or a Warhol, but this multi-million dollar sale at Christie’s comes from the hand of a different kind of artist: Mother Nature.
Late Thursday, Christie’s sold the skeleton of a Deinonychus antirrhopus – a species that became one of the world’s most recognizable dinosaurs after the movie ‘Jurassic Park’ was released – for $12.4 million, with fees , to an undisclosed buyer. The auction continues the trend of high-priced fossil sales, a trend that has angered some paleontologists, who fear specimens could be lost to science if purchased by individuals rather than public institutions.
The auction house said the fossil, nicknamed Hector, was the first public sale of a Deinonychus, an agile bipedal dinosaur known for menacing claws on its feet. The sale price was more than double the auction house’s estimated high price of $6 million.
The species probably wouldn’t get this much attention if it weren’t for “Jurassic Park.” In the novel and the 1993 film, the beasts called velociraptors actually look more like a Deinonychus (the novel’s author, Michael Crichton, once admitted that “velociraptor” just sounded more dramatic).
This skeletal specimen contains 126 real bones, but the rest are reconstructed, including most of the skull, the auction house said. Dating to about 110 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous, the specimen was excavated from private land in Montana about a decade ago by Jack and Roberta Owen, self-taught paleontologists, according to Jared Hudson, a commercial paleontologist. who purchased and prepared the specimen. It was then purchased by the most recent owner, who remains anonymous.
“I had no idea it would end up at Christie’s,” Jack Owen, 69, said in an interview this week. He said he was trained in archeology and worked as a ranch manager and fencing contractor.
Owen had made a deal with the landowner of the ranch where he worked, allowing him to dig fossils and share the profits, he said. He first spotted some of the bone fragments in an area where he had previously found two other animals. Using a scalpel and toothbrush, among other tools, he and Roberta, his wife, carefully collected the specimen, with assistance.
Watching him go for millions of dollars is staggering, he said – the payoff he received was nowhere near. But Owen said his fossil hunt was not motivated by money.
“It’s about the hunt; it’s about discovery,” he said. “You are the only human in the world to have touched this animal, and that is priceless.”
Fossils of the species were discovered by paleontologist John H. Ostrom in 1964, and he gave them the name Deinonychus, meaning terrible claw, after the sharply curved hunting claw he believed the dinosaur used to cut its prey. Ostrom’s discovery was the basis of how scientists understand certain dinosaurs today – less lizard-like and more bird-like; fast-moving and possibly warm-blooded, and even feathered.
This scientific development is one reason academic paleontologists might be interested in studying specimens like Hector.
Some paleontologists have long opposed the practice of auctioning off these fossils because they fear the specimens could end up being sold at prices beyond the reach of museums.
The issue rose to prominence with the sale of Sue, the T. rex skeleton, to the Field Museum for $8.36 million – nearly $15 million in today’s dollars – in 1997. And it has come under scrutiny more recently, after a T. rex skeleton nicknamed Stan fetched a record $31.8 million, nearly quadrupling its estimated high of $8 million.
Before Christie’s auctioned Stan in 2020, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology urged it to consider restricting the sale to “bidders from institutions committed to preserving specimens for the public good and in perpetuity, or those who bid on behalf of these institutions”.
“As an organization, we decided that we thought vertebrate fossils belonged in museums,” Jessica M. Theodor, president of the society, said in an interview. “If it’s in private hands, that person dies, their estate sells the specimen, and the information is lost.”
Many commercial paleontologists – like Hudson, who bought Hector from the Owens – counter that their work is also essential for science and that they must be paid for their work in order to continue doing it.
“If people like us weren’t in the field,” Hudson said, “dinosaurs would be eroding and completely cut off from science.”