Among the most precious finds at this year’s Tucson Gem and Mineral Show were the fossilized remains of a creature that roamed the earth’s surface more than 65 million years ago.
The Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton stood 12 feet high and 38 feet long. He was posed mid-snarl, baring his ferocious fangs. His name is Russell...and he’s for sale.
Russell, whose price tag is $2.9 million, was on display in a showroom off of Oracle Road, near the Tucson-based Geodecor Fossils and Minerals. He sat in the midst of a brewing conflict between commercial collectors, who sell their pieces to the highest bidders, and paleontologist,s who stress the scientific importance of these ancient fossils.
Under U.S. law, the collection of fossils on public lands is restricted to researchers with permits. But fossils found on private land are private property. Fossil hunters pay licensing fees to landowners in fossil-rich areas, such as Montana and Wyoming. Once found and excavated, commercial traders can sell the pieces to whomever they choose.
Geodecor owner Thomas Lindgren said despite strained relations with the scientific community, he doesn’t just sell scientifically important pieces to the highest bidder – he gives access to researchers and museums.
But Thomas Carr, director of the Carthage Institute of Paleontology in Wisconsin, said commercial collectors just granting access to scientists is not enough.
"According to the ethics of my profession, the scientific profession, we cannot study fossils that are not in a real museum. We cannot publish information on fossils that are not in a real museum because there’s no guarantee that in private hands that those fossils will be conserved adequately," he explained. "So right now, I can’t go and study the T-Rex named Russell that’s on display at the Gem and Mineral show. Just can’t touch it. And for each Tyrannosauric skeleton, I collect over 11,000 data points that would go toward extending our understanding of the evolution and biology of Tyrannosaurs."
"How can you say that it has no value if you don’t look at the record keeping that was done?" Lindgren said. "...And the fact that these are collected by people that are immensely qualified. We’re professionals."
Commercial fossil collectors have a long history working with paleontologists. One famous fossil hunter named Charles Sternberg worked with dozens of museums and universities from the 1870s to the 1920s.
But the current bonanza in the commercial market is usually traced back to 1997, when the most complete T-rex skeleton ever found, called Sue, was auctioned by private collectors. Chicago’s Field Museum acquired Sue but private donors, including McDonalds and the Walt Disney Corporation, footed a large portion of the $8.4 million price tag.
Russell, Lindgren's Tyrannosaurus rex, was discovered on a ranch in Montana. Another prominent fossil trader and, until this year, a regular dealer at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Shows, Eric Prokopi, a Florida native, brought the more nefarious sides of the fossil trade to the fore in 2012, when he auctioned a Tyrannosaurus bataar for just over $1 million.
It was later proven that Prokopi’s skeleton was illegally smuggled from Mongolia – where commercial exploration of dinosaur bones is strictly banned. Prokopi’s dinosaur has since been repatriated and the trader faces 17 years in prison.
Carr said lack of regulation means that illegal fossils make their way to the commercial market.
Lindgren, on the other hand, said that while cases like Prokopi’s bring bad press for his industry, he doesn’t believe further regulation is required.
"We try and police ourselves. Those of us who do this regularly, police everyone else because we don’t want a bad name. and someone that gives us a bad name, we blackball," he said. "We won’t deal with them. We won’t buy from them."
Over the course of the two weeks that Lindgren opened his doors to the public in Tucson, a number of the fossils on display in his showroom were carefully packed into crates and shipped to buyers around the world. But on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 16, when the 2014 Gem and Mineral shows came to a close, Russell remained frozen, mid-snarl – where he’ll stay until Lindgren finds a buyer.