£20 million for a T-Rex? Why dinosaurs are devouring the art market

Tyrannosaurus Rex 'Stan' on display at Christie's in 2020 - Angela Weiss/AFP
Tyrannosaurus Rex 'Stan' on display at Christie's in 2020 - Angela Weiss/AFP

King of the Tyrant Lizards: that’s the translation of the Greek-and-Latin name bestowed, in 1905, on a newly discovered species of dinosaur by the president of the American Museum of Natural History, palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn.

His coinage was an inspired piece of marketing: the first thing many think of when they hear the word “dinosaur” is the frightening silhouette (thrashing tail, powerful hind legs, bone-crunching mandible) of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which lived in what is now the American West near the end of the Cretaceous period, around 66 to 68 million years ago. In a new television documentary, Into Dinosaur Valley, aired tonight, historian Dan Snow recounts the story of its discovery, as well that of various other dinosaurs.

Today, as well as being scary, a T-Rex’s remains can be staggeringly expensive: later this month, a 40ft-long T-Rex skeleton nicknamed Shen (a Chinese word for “Godlike”) was set to be offered for sale by Christie’s in Hong Kong, with an upper estimate of $25 million (£21.2 million) – until news broke earlier this week that the lot had been withdrawn. Supposedly, the consignor, following a change of heart, had decided instead to lend Shen to a museum – although, according to reports in America, there has been controversy over how much of the skeleton was fake.

Next month, though, in a single-lot sale in New York, Sotheby’s still expects to sell a T-Rex skull (which it’s calling Maximus) for up to $20 million. It follows another sale held over the summer by the auction house, also in New York, of a 22ft-long Gorgosaurus (a predatory relative of T-Rex that lived approximately 80 million years ago), which went for $6.1 million.

But perhaps more astonishing than these immoderate prices is that, in Hong Kong, Shen would have been the star lot of an auction of 20th and 21st-century art, rather than a natural history sale. Apparently, the latest fad among the super-rich is to display fossilised skeletons alongside paintings and sculptures. Dinosaurs, it seems, now roam a novel environment – the habitat of fine art.

A Gorgosaurus skeleton on display at Sotheby's in July - Shutterstock
A Gorgosaurus skeleton on display at Sotheby's in July - Shutterstock

For Christie’s specialist James Hyslop, it makes some sense. No other dinosaur, he argues, has the “brand recognition” of a T-Rex, which is why he was hoping that Shen would appeal to collectors of “blue-chip” art. He went as far as to describe the prehistoric beast as “the Leonardo [da Vinci] of the dinosaur world”. Erm, wasn’t the Renaissance artist a vegetarian?

In fact, Christie’s was replicating in Asia the strategy behind a successful sale held two years ago in North America, when an exceptional T-Rex fossil nicknamed “Stan”, discovered in 1987 in South Dakota, sold in New York at another auction of 20th-century art for $31.8 million – a record for a dinosaur specimen. The winning telephone bid, which Hyslop conveyed, reportedly came from Abu Dhabi’s department for culture and tourism, which plans to display Stan in a new natural history museum due to open in 2025.

The sale of Stan had repercussions even for art critics like me who seldom come across dinosaurs. Earlier this autumn, for instance, while reporting on the Frieze Masters art fair, I could hardly miss a plant-eating Camptosaurus skeleton (the name means “flexible lizard”) offered by David Aaron gallery, which otherwise specialises in antiquities and early Islamic art. These days, it turns out, it isn’t just collectors of contemporary art who covet dinosaur fossils.

It wasn’t always like this. Historically, says the Natural History Museum’s senior dinosaur specialist Paul Barrett, the “primary market” for specimens (aside from a handful of “dedicated private collectors”) was museums – perhaps because, for the wider public, these extinct reptiles were still “viewed as a giant metaphor for failure”. Things changed, though, Barrett tells me, in the wake of the Jurassic Park film, which, directed by Steven Spielberg, reflected recent rejuvenation within the field of palaeontology.

'Maximus' on display at Sotheby's - Getty
'Maximus' on display at Sotheby's - Getty

This “phenomenon”, he explains, “crystallised around the sale of a T-Rex skeleton nicknamed Sue that’s now in the Field Museum in Chicago”, which became “the most expensive fossil ever bought or sold” when it was auctioned in 1997 for $8.3 million. Since then, he says, dinosaur fossils “have entered the consciousness of the higher-end interior-decorating and fine arts markets, and we’ve seen a real premium attached to nice specimens”.

Which, you might think, should be a cause for celebration among scientists. In fact, says Barrett, the sale of Sue “created huge ructions within the palaeontological world”, because museums have been priced out. The fear, he says, is that if a specimen now goes “into private hands, we may never know it was there in the first place – and critical data may be lost to science forever”. For hardline palaeontologists, he says, fossils should be the “common property of all mankind”.

Moreover, surging prices have stimulated a mini-industry in dinosaur hunters who head out into the wilds of North America and elsewhere, hoping to excavate potentially lucrative skeletons.

But, says Barrett, “many countries that are productive of dinosaur fossils [such as Mongolia] now have stringent laws that prevent the permanent export of that material”. He tells me that, famously, “Nicolas Cage bought a Tarbosaurus skull at a public auction (after a bidding war with Leonardo di Caprio), but he returned this to a museum in Mongolia after he found out it had been illegally exported”.

Excavating dinosaur fossils is a costly, laborious business, as each bone is carefully encased in a plaster jacket and sent elsewhere for cleaning and reassembly. No specimen is complete, so gaps are filled with replica bones, often cast in resin. Which brings us to a potential pitfall when buying a dinosaur skeleton: misunderstanding its completeness. A 2007 study estimated that a T-Rex skeleton was composed of 298 bones – according to Hyslop, Shen still had 79.

Dan Snow presents Into Dinosaur Valley
Dan Snow presents Into Dinosaur Valley

Yet palaeontologist John Nudds says simply counting the number of preserved bones is a flawed metric: “The problem is that every bone counts as ‘one’, so a tiny toe bone counts the same as a huge thigh bone.” Instead, Nudds prefers to talk about “bone density”. Shen, for instance, was said by Christie’s to have a bone density of 54 per cent.

Still, according to Hyslop, “complete” T-Rex skeletons “come up incredibly infrequently” – only 20 to 40 have ever been found, he tells me, depending on how you define “complete” – so rarity determines price. Moreover, he adds, “carnivores definitely attract more attention and generally a higher price than herbivore dinosaurs” – which Hyslop puts down to “a little bit of morbid fear: there’s a slight [element of] ‘memento mori’ about it, I think”.

Could there, though, be another factor driving the cost of T-Rex skeletons? According to Aaron, clients interested in dinosaur fossils typically come from a “much younger demographic” and tend to be “tech-orientated”. It’s tempting to speculate that nerdy young men who’ve made a fortune in tech and like to consider themselves apex predators of the corporate world combat any lingering feelings of inadequacy by identifying with T-Rex.

Certainly, for Barrett, who works mostly on plant-eating dinosaurs, “the largest terrestrial carnivore of all time” is, in the popular imagination, bound up with “macho bullshit”: “For people who basically like dinosaurs as movie monsters, a T-Rex is essentially a really good, frightening movie monster.” Yet, he smiles, “as far as I’m concerned, big meat-eaters are large, vulgar, stupid things”.

Somehow, though, I doubt his view will deter enterprising dealers and auctioneers from attempting to give their ferocious reptilian wares a sophisticated sheen.

‘Into Dinosaur Valley with Dan Snow’ will be broadcast on Channel 5 at 9pm tonight; Maximus Rex will be sold at Sotheby’s New York (sothebys.com) on Dec 9