Bones of Contention

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

Newman's explanation struck the Ty Rex investors as ludicrous. "To me, the whole commercial value of this is about the science you can do with it," says Michael Grano. "I built into the contract from the beginning that they were going to give us information on the paleontology -- that's the most important piece."

At gem-show seminars, Peter Larson urges amateur collectors to keep detailed records of an excavation. "Museums could care less about specimens that have no data with them," he says. "'Perhaps' isn't going to work with a T. rex specimen. Without documentation, you don't have a market, period."

Herskowitz agrees. Although his clients are primarily private collectors, he says, "I refuse to sell any fossils that a museum would refuse to accept. No matter how great a specimen is, if they don't have the data, I don't want it."

Tyson Smith
Missing links: A video taken during the dig, starring Japh Boyce.
Missing links: A video taken during the dig, starring Japh Boyce.

The Ty Rex group suspected that Newman's reluctance to provide dig data was directly connected to the greater problem of the fossil's chain of ownership. Records of the excavation might reveal the role played by the mysterious "gentleman collector" Boyce refused to name. The deeper the Denver investors dug into the title question, the murkier things got. They were confronted with an abundance of coprolites: fossilized crap.

When was the fossil discovered, and by whom? Miller and Grano say that Newman's agent represented that the find was "fresh to the market." An early statement of ownership provided by Robert and Gail Stoddard indicates that it was discovered in 1999. A later document signed by the ranching couple states that the bones "were discovered by us" and fixes the date of discovery as the "early summer of 1995." Boyce wrote that the first bones were "discovered by ranch workers." But the Black Hills Institute registry lists Leon Theisen as the discoverer.

Who bought the fossil from the Stoddards, and when? The initial story had been that the Stoddards sold it to Boyce, who sold it to Newman, but the story changed when the investors pressed for details. Six months after the sale to Miller, Newman provided an amended provenance that indicated Barnum had been found in 1995 but not excavated until 1999. The excavation was supposedly done by Boyce and his unidentified partner, the "gentleman collector," who had owned the fossil, along with Boyce, for a period of twenty days in 1999 until Boyce bought him out. Boyce had then sold the fossil to Newman.

But Newman offered no canceled checks or other documents as evidence of these transactions. "Most of this [fossil business] is done on a handshake," Newman says. "We all know each other."

Nor is it clear when Newman bought the fossil from Boyce. Miller was under the impression that Newman didn't yet have title when the T. rex first came to Miller's attention in early 2000. "I was told Newman had an option on it from the person who owned it," he recalls. "Newman was representing himself as being in a position to buy this and sell it to us."

In one version of the provenance, Newman claims to have purchased the fossil on February 4, 2000. (A letter from his attorney claims the transaction took place in April 2000 -- after Newman had already sold the dinosaur to Miller.) In other documents, both Newman and Boyce claim the sale occurred much earlier, in February 1999.

But letters from Boyce to Newman in January 2000 indicate that Boyce still owned the fossil at that point, possibly in partnership with someone else. He pleads with Newman for discretion in marketing the find: "Both my partner and the rancher are paranoid about outside attention. The two gentlemen are neighboring ranchers, and are worried about people rushing to their land."

After Ty Rex filed its lawsuit, Boyce was finally compelled to reveal the identity of his partner: John Bolan, the "gentleman collector" Theisen had encountered at the Denver gem show. By this point, the dates and details of the arrangements between the landowner, the digger and the collector had changed yet again. Boyce now claimed that he'd had an "informal verbal agreement" with the Stoddards dating back to 1995, and that Bolan had a separate agreement with the Stoddards to share in the proceeds of the excavation. Bolan sold out his interest to the Stoddards in 1997, Boyce insisted, and Boyce bought out the Stoddards and became sole owner in early 1999.

This version was backed up by a testy, one-sentence memo from John Bolan: "It is my understanding that in January or February of 1997, my one-third interest in a joint venture with Bob Stoddard and J. Boyce was terminated."

Far from clarifying the matter, the latest version only raised more questions for the Denver investors. Why all the secrecy surrounding Bolan's role? Why had the dates of his involvement been pushed back two years, from 1999 to 1997?

What little information the investors were able to discover about Bolan was not encouraging. His ranch outside of Newcastle had been purchased with fossils in mind. As recently as 1998, Bolan and Boyce had been offering guided trips to the property, known as "Triceratops Ranch," to amateur fossil hounds. For a fee, visitors could keep any dinosaur artifacts they found -- unless the find was deemed valuable, in which case the finder could purchase it for 30 to 50 percent of its value.

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