Bones of Contention

Finding Barnum was hard enough. But to excavate the intrigue around the prize T. rex, you must dig deeper.

The warring parties involved agree about very little concerning Specimen #23 -- including its name. Its first owners called it JB, then RJB. These days it's known as Barnum, in honor of Barnum Brown, the legendary fossil hunter who found the first three T. rex fossils in Wyoming and Montana a hundred years ago. But Brown was named after an even more famous Barnum.

The one who said there's a sucker born every minute.

A T-shirt made for the occasion contradicts a video taken during the dig about how and when "JB," alias Barnum, was discovered.
A T-shirt made for the occasion contradicts a video taken during the dig about how and when "JB," alias Barnum, was discovered.
A T-shirt made for the occasion contradicts a video taken during the dig about how and when "JB," alias Barnum, was discovered.
A T-shirt made for the occasion contradicts a video taken during the dig about how and when "JB," alias Barnum, was discovered.

The commercial fossil business has always been driven by a small but enthusiastic group of hunters and diggers, independent dealers and private collectors. Most of the major players know each other, since they cross paths repeatedly at gem and mineral shows around the country.

A few have paleontology degrees. Others may be self-taught but are capable of preparing museum-quality displays of intricate, complex specimens. Some hunters are meticulous about gathering scientific data as they conduct an excavation, documenting every step of the process. Others are rank hobbyists or worse, slash-and-grab specialists who pay little attention to the integrity of a site -- or to "No Trespassing" signs, for that matter.

The behavior of a few outlandish collectors and dealers has drawn criticism from researchers, many of whom deplore the idea of selling scientifically important specimens to private collectors; it's also sparked investigations by federal officials charged with protecting fossils on public lands ("Skeletons in Their Closet," June 19, 1997). But defenders of the business say the controversy over "commercial" versus "academic" fossil hunting is a bogus one. Without private entrepreneurs underwriting digs and collecting like mad, they say, museums would have few fossils to display.

"Every natural-history museum in this country began with a private collection," says David Herskowitz, director of the natural-history department for Butterfield's, a San Francisco auction house that markets high-end fossils to private collectors. "Something like 80 percent of the dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York came from private fossil hunters."

Because of the time and expense involved in excavation and preparation, few fossil people wind up striking it rich. "The real dealers are in it because they love it," Herskowitz explains. "They started out as collectors. They're not businessmen. They do it because it's their passion. Of course, there are swindlers in every business."

For many years, the fossil community went about its business with little scrutiny from outsiders, buying and swapping bones and occasionally digging up something dramatic, if not revolutionary. But all that has changed in the past decade, particularly with regard to the T. rex trade. The shift has less to do with any Spielberg movie or purple-dinosaur craze than it does with one real-life discovery that shook the business to its flinty core.

In 1990, fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson spotted a piece of bone sticking out of a hillside near the town of Faith, South Dakota. Her colleague, Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute, gave the landowner $5,000 for the rights to the fossil. By 1990 standards, it was a hefty amount to pay for a still-buried specimen, but it turned out to be chump change considering what Larson and his team dug out of the ground over the next few weeks: the largest, most complete T. rex ever found. Called Sue, the fossil had roughly 85 percent of its bones intact, including its magnificent 600-pound skull.

The discovery soon turned into a legal quagmire for Larson and his company. The landowner, Maurice Williams, asserted that, despite the payment, Sue belonged to him. His ranch was located on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, and the tribe made a claim to the fossil, too. To further complicate matters, Williams's land was held in trust by the federal government, and the feds were keen on establishing their own claim.

The legal brawl drew international headlines and dragged on for years. Williams was finally declared the owner, and in 1997 he arranged for Sotheby's to sell the T. rex at a public auction. After eight minutes of tense bidding, Chicago's Field Museum bought Sue for $8.36 million.

The unprecedented sum brought a wave of speculators, investors and hustlers into the fossil business, eager to find and promote other T. rex specimens. But no other T. rex has sold at auction since Sue, and some experts believe that the few that have been aggressively marketed over the past few years, notably a South Dakota native called Z-rex, are wildly overpriced.

Just because Sue sold for $8 million doesn't mean that a T. rex that's half as complete is worth $4 million, Herskowitz notes. For one thing, at least eighteen T. rex fossils have been found since Sue, diluting the market; for another, Sue is unique, the non plus ultra of dinosaurs.

"There were so many things Sue had," Herskowitz sighs. "Sue had a great skull. It was the best. It's leaps and bounds ahead of every other one on the market since then. But every time someone finds a T. Rex, they think they hit a gold mine."

Denver art dealer Jeff Miller describes the post-Sue fossil world in similar terms. "The fossil business is dominated by grubbers," Miller says. "When I lived in Central City, there were guys who were still working those gold mines. They'd work a regular job and go in the mines at night. You'd see them the next morning, and they were absolutely filthy. That's what these fossil guys are doing. They're trying to find the mother lode; they're trying to find the next Sue."

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