Dinosaur skeleton: Tyrannosaurus rex is auctioned in Zurich

EIt takes more than an average three-room apartment to accommodate the piece of jewelry that is to be auctioned in Zurich: the auction house Koller is offering a dinosaur skeleton there on April 18th. The Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex) measures 11.6 by 3.9 meters. Interested parties also have to dig deep into their pockets. Koller gives the price for the life-size bone collection mounted on a frame at five to eight million francs (up to 8.1 million euros).

T. rex are the best-selling dinosaurs, says paleontologist Katja Waskow from the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig (ZFMK) in Bonn. “Dinosaurs have something puzzling, mystical about them, which is why many people’s hearts open up when they hear the subject.” However, she finds it problematic to auction such skeletons to the highest bidder. “I take a critical view of the skeleton falling into the wrong hands, and that can’t be ruled out at an auction,” she says. “But: not every private person who buys a dinosaur skeleton is on the bad side.”

In Switzerland, for example, there is the private Aathal dinosaur museum, whose director Hans-Jakob Siber leased land in the USA and dug up and prepared dinosaurs. He exhibits them and lets scientists do research on them. “That’s okay,” says Waskow. Every fragment of a dinosaur bone is valuable for their own research. “We look at the bone structure, there you can find growth rings like in trees,” she says. In this way one can determine whether the animal was fully grown or well fed.

40 T-Rex skeletons were found

Dennis Hansen, head of the collections at the Zoological Museum Zurich, has no problem with the private business with dinosaur skeletons. Skeletons threatened to decompose if not recovered. If private collectors paid for it, that’s fine. Sooner or later such skeletons ended up in museums. “If we have to wait two to three generations for a private collector or his grandson to bequeath this to a museum, that’s fine,” he told the auction house. “The dinosaurs are 65 to 66 million years old, what does a couple of human generations mean?”

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According to an estimate, around 2.5 billion T. rex lived on earth. So far, however, only 30 to 40 more or less intact skeletons have been found in the USA. “The T. rex is a classic North American dinosaur,” says Waskow. “Central Europe was then mostly under the sea, an island landscape. You’re more likely to find fossils of sea creatures here.” The first T. rex skeleton was discovered in Wyoming in 1900.

Composed of three skeletons

The specimen being auctioned in Zurich is called “TRX-293 Trinity” because it was assembled from three skeletons. They were excavated in Montana and Wyoming between 2008 and 2013. Trinity is privately owned. Only around 50 percent of the bones are original material. That’s a good rate, says the auction house.

One of the most famous T. rex skeletons is “Sue,” named after Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the bones in South Dakota in 1990. The 13 meter long skeleton has 90 percent original bones. What is found on American land belongs to the tenant or landowner. The skeleton was auctioned. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was awarded the contract in 1997 for 8.4 million dollars (at that time 14.5 million German marks, in euros: 7.4 million).

Members of the installation team assemble the skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus rex “TRX-293 Trinity” for auction house Koller in Zurich's Tonhalle.

Members of the installation team assemble the skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus rex ‘TRX-293 Trinity’ for auction house Koller in Zurich’s Tonhalle.

Source: Michael Buholzer/picture alliance/dpa/Keystone

One of the things that fueled the dinosaur boom was the 1993 film Jurassic Park, a sci-fi film featuring dinosaurs brought to life in modern times. “The T. rex was the largest carnivore and predator known at the time,” says Waskow. It is scientifically controversial whether he was a hunter or rather a scavenger. “The Giganotosaurus is now also known, it was even bigger and more dangerous than the T. rex,” says Waskow.

Dino bone prices have skyrocketed for years. For example, “Stan,” discovered by Stan Sacrison in South Dakota in 1992, is a skeleton with 70 percent original bone. The private Black Hills Institute prepared it and exhibited it worldwide. In 2020, the Arab Emirate Abu Dhabi bought “Stan” for 31 million dollars. It is to be exhibited in Abu Dhabi from the end of 2025.

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Charlatans are also riding the wave of popularity: in November 2022, the auction house Christie’s in Hong Kong withdrew a skeleton dubbed “Shen” when doubts arose about the content of real bones. The President of the Black Hills Institute discovered in many places a striking resemblance to his “Stan”, of which authorized replicas have been circulating for years.

A T. rex skeleton can also be seen in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. “Tristan Otto” is twelve meters long, named after the sons of the owners, wealthy entrepreneurs. It has about 50 percent original bone material and was excavated in Montana in 2010. The entrepreneurs made it available to the museum on loan.

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