By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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By Melanie Asmar
Last week's auction was supposed to resolve the conundrum of who owns Barnum, a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex with a fascinating and troubled past. But the rancor and intrigue surrounding the much-contested fossil has only deepened, leaving a group of battered Denver investors crying foul -- again.
Discovered in 1995 in northeastern Wyoming and the subject of murky ownership disputes and heated litigation, Barnum is one of thirty T. rexes ever found and only the second to be offered at public auction. The sale, conducted by Bonhams and Butterfields in Los Angeles, was expected to bring between $400,000 and $900,000. Yet the celebrated bones, comprising 20 percent of the big predator's skeleton, sold to undisclosed parties for only $80,000, plus tax and fees -- far less than various claimants have already spent excavating the remains and battling over them in court. The burned sellers are now questioning the role of one of the fossil's discoverers in the sale and seeking to clarify the circumstances of the purchase.
"I just don't understand how this happened," says Jeff Miller, who heads a group of Denver investors who acquired an ownership interest in the fossil four years ago. "We all believed this would sell for a lot more money. Something went really wrong here."
"It's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre all over again," adds Paul Swedlund, the Denver attorney for a California preschool teacher who was another of Barnum's claimants. "People who fought over this thing for years ended up with nothing."
Although many details about last week's sale remain unclear, the saga of Barnum has emerged as a cautionary tale about the frenzied speculation in T. rex bones that has gripped the fossil world since the 1990 discovery of Sue, the most complete T. rex ever found. Although Sue ultimately sold at Sotheby's for a staggering $8.36 million, Barnum proved to be a much more fragmentary specimen -- and a more elusive treasure.
In early 2000, Miller's group entered into a contract to buy Barnum, along with a life-sized resin cast of an adult T. rex skeleton, for $400,000. The sellers were South Dakota paleontologist Japheth Boyce, who had overseen Barnum's excavation from a Wyoming ranch, and Mark Newman, a New York fossil dealer. But the matter quickly wound up in federal court, as the buyers tried to untangle a convoluted chain of title to the fossil that involved Newman, Boyce, the ranch owner and John Bolan, a wealthy California collector and Boyce's erstwhile partner ("Bones of Contention," November 29, 2001). At the same time that Newman was in the process of selling the bones to Miller's group, the judge in Bolan's acrimonious divorce case ruled that the T. rex, if ever located -- Bolan had denied any knowledge of the fossil -- was a marital asset that belonged to Christine Bolan, the collector's ex-wife.
Newman and Boyce eventually settled Christine Bolan's claim on Barnum for $300,000, making the preschool teacher the only clear winner in the protracted wrangling over the fossil. The dispute with Miller's group over Boyce's alleged misrepresentations ended with an agreement to sell the bones at auction, in the hope that all the parties involved could recover their investments and mounting legal fees.
In the weeks leading up to the sale, anticipation among the investors was high -- particularly after Boyce flew to Great Britain to compare pieces of Barnum with the remains of a venerable T. rex owned by London's Natural History Museum. Barnum had been named in honor of Barnum Brown, the legendary fossil hunter who found the first T. rex in Wyoming a century ago, but the link was now suspected to be more profound than the investors had imagined. Boyce returned from his trip declaring that Barnum was, in fact, a complementary collection of skeletal pieces that fit with Brown's original discovery, which had been excavated not far from the 1995 dig -- a selling point that could only boost the value of the bones.
According to various sources, several potential phone bidders had registered to vie for Barnum -- which, the New York Times reported, was "expected to fetch at least $900,000." But the actual bidding was over within minutes, with the winning bid of $80,000 coming anonymously by phone; later, the auction house would characterize the purchasers simply as a group of South Dakota investors. The sale of the resin cast brought another $60,000; under the terms of the settlement agreement hammered out in federal court, Miller's group recovered $140,000 of its investment, while Boyce and Newman will recoup nothing from the sale.
Boyce told the Times reporter that he didn't know who had bought Barnum. One investor who spoke with Boyce shortly after the sale says he "acted like Sgt. Schultz," professing to know nothing, nothing about the transaction. But rumors were soon rampant among the disappointed sellers that Boyce knew more than he admitted, and that a mysterious, last-minute communiqué raising questions about the fossil's litigious history may have scared away other possible bidders.
Two sources familiar with the sale say that Boyce acted as an agent for the buyers -- who happen to be situated in Boyce's home state. Miller says that if that's true, it might be grounds for challenging the validity of the sale, because such an arrangement is precluded by the contractual arrangements among the sellers and the auction house.