By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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"Paleontology has moved forward with some commercial dealing in the past," says Tony Firillo, curator of paleontology at the Dallas Museum of Natural History. "Today it is an entirely different game. We have one tool for studying the history of life on this planet, and that is the fossil record. If specimens get sold into private hands and we never see them again, we can't use them; we can't unravel this history of life."
With a pop-culture landscape teeming with dinosaurs varying from saccharine Barney to Jurassic Park's killer velociraptors, it is no wonder the market for the real thing is growing. Ten years ago, there were 20 commercial dealers; today, the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers lists more than 120, and the fossil trade totals between $3 million and $5 million a year. In a good year, however (or a bad one, depending on your viewpoint), a single sale can generate much more than that.
In 1990, Peter Larson, a commercial dealer prospecting in South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, excavated a nearly complete T. rex skeleton, which he named Sue after his girlfriend. He had paid the ranch owner handsomely to dig on his land, and the bones were shipped back to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Science, Larson's commercial fossil supply house. As soon as the word was out, tourists started streaming in and along with them, a surprise: 30 FBI agents. Alleging the reservation had been placed in trust to the U.S. government and could not be dug for commercial purposes, they carted the bones away, giving rise to the headline "FBI Seizes Dinosaur."
A long lawsuit later, Larson landed in jail for failing to fill out the correct forms, and Sue was sent to New York's Sotheby's. In October 1997, with controversy, Hollywood glamour, and the high-dollar auction house lending the old bones a glimmer of star status, Sue sold for an unprecedented $8.36 million. Larson, however, did not see any of the money. It went to the ranch owner. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History outbid competitors with the help of Disney and McDonald's, which received replicas to help sell hamburgers and movie tickets.
No fossil had broken the million-dollar mark before. Paleontologists attending the sale worried about the consequences of such a high-profile--and high-dollar--event.
"The amount of money Sue was sold for makes it hard for [nonprofit and research institutions]," says Jason Head, a doctoral candidate in vertebrate paleontology at SMU. "There were academics who had great agreements made with private land owners, but once fossils started becoming a profitable market, they were kicked off." Head refuses even to look at material prepared by commercial dealers.
Firillo adds that there are people out there now who think they can make their retirement through one big find. He fears that may lead to destructive behavior, such as digging up fossils hastily, in the middle of the night, or without expert advice.
Frederick Nuss is first in line among those hoping to make it big. The commercial fossil dealer from Kansas and a partner own "Z. Rex," one of the world's best-preserved tyrannosauruses. They had been trying to sell it for five years before Sue came along. Asking price? $10 million.
Now, with the hype and the burgeoning Internet market for just about anything, their time had come. They contacted Wyatt, and he agreed to be their broker.
Wyatt didn't close on any sales, though he came close, he says. But the aftershock of Sue's sale can still be felt. This year, Wyatt thinks another three or four T. rexes will come up for sale. Meanwhile, august nonprofits such as the Smithsonian are doomed to remain tyrannosaurus-less.
In the midst of this controversy, the only issue that private dealers and academics agree on is the need for better regulation of the field. Commercial collectors are not allowed to prospect on public land, unlike museums and research institutions, and the collectors don't like that.
"There are a lot of fossils out there on public lands that are being exposed to the weather and destroyed. Why not issue permits to commercial collectors as well as museums to go out there and collect them?" Wyatt asks.
Many academics, however, want rules that pull the other way, toward a more tightly guarded field.
"The laws we have now are few and far between," Head says. "The Bureau of Land Management has one or two officers per million acres, so how are they going to watch over what goes on?"
Head sides with the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in condemning fossil sales, but he emphasizes that most academics are thankful for help received from fossil enthusiasts who make important finds and notify them.
"I just wrote a paper on the world's most primitive duck-billed dinosaur, discovered near Flower Mound by Gary Byrd," he says. Byrd is not a professional paleontologist, but he recognized the value of his find and notified the Department of Geological Sciences at SMU. Head named the 15- to 20-foot-long dinosaur after him--Protohadros byrdi.
Although he donates material to museums and loves his work, Wyatt admits he can't afford to be too altruistic about his trade.