A Tyrannosaurus rex whose name is Sue was found on a ranch in the South Dakota Badlands in 1990. Described as a remarkably complete skeleton, she had teeth the size of bananas.
This is Sue.
Where are we going? To the power of the T.rex market.
Peter Larson paid Maurice Williams $5,000. Larson said it was for Sue. Williams claimed the money was just for the right to look for fossils on his land.
As a commercial fossils dealer, Larson hoped to sell Sue after one of his employees found her bones “dripping” from the side of a South Dakota mountain. Instead, the FBI showed up at his home one day and seized the dinosaur. The case wound up in court where a judge decided the rancher was the owner.
This takes us to Sotheby’s, a 1997 auction, and $8.36 million.
No one had accurately estimated the frenzy that Sue would create. Sotheby’s $500,000 starting bid was close to the top amount that a fossil had ever sold for. One benefactor thought he could get Sue to the Smithsonian for $2.5 million. Some believed Michael Jackson was a bidder. Towards the end of the auction, with only a private individual and Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History remaining, the numbers hit $7.5 million. At $7.6 million, the other bidder dropped out.
Including sale-related fees, Sue cost the museum $8.36 million. They were able to afford the gargantuan sum because McDonald’s said “We’re in” when asked for the money and Disney agreed to help out too.
When the market for Sue moved to millions, both the supply and demand sides changed. On the supply side, public institutions and government suddenly had competition. The North Dakota Geological Survey was concerned that new specimens would leave the state. They also had to debate where government should have fossil property rights. In the field, specimen robberies were reported. One museum said that a donor had requested the return of his fossil. And everywhere, the scientific community worried that it would miss research opportunities if private buyers controlled fossil markets.
Meanwhile demand expanded. Museums found themselves racing to secure corporate support as they bid against other institutions, private foreign and domestic buyers, and speculators..
T. rex was hot and still is.