Bones of Contention
This all started around 65 million years ago, when a large carnivore died badly in the wilds of what is now eastern Wyoming. But no human paid any attention to the big fellow's demise until one day in the summer of 1995 -- the day two men lugged a box of bones to Leon Theisen's place in Hill City, South Dakota.
The men were fossil hunters from Newcastle, Wyoming, less than an hour's drive from Hill City. The box was full of scraps and fragments of triceratops material, Theisen recalls, with hardly a decent bone in the bunch. After asking the questions any reputable fossil dealer would ask -- Were the bones found on private land? Did they have the landowner's permission to take them? -- Theisen offered to buy the lot for a couple hundred bucks.
The men quickly accepted. They told Theisen they could bring him better bones if they knew what to look for. "They said there were a few more bones lying around this ranch, and they weren't sure what they were worth," Theisen recalls. "Would I go out and look at them and give them some pointers?"
Theisen was not the man to say no. He had a passion for bones. He found his first fossilized insect behind his parents' garage in Michigan when he was five years old, and he'd been hooked ever since. He'd moved to Hill City years before to work with the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a leading private center for fossil excavation and preparation. Although he still assisted BHI on digs and mounting large specimens, he'd since developed his own business as a dealer and restorer. But nothing replaced the thrill of actually going out in the field and getting his hands dirty, unearthing the secrets of a world lost long before Homo sapiens began his short stroll on the planet.
The three men arranged a rendezvous south of Newcastle, not far from the ranch where the bones had been found. Theisen was surprised to see one of the fossil hunters, who called himself Randy, drive up in a county sheriff's vehicle. (According to a dispatcher for the Weston County Sheriff's Department, Randy no longer works there.) Soon they were walking up and down ancient draws and washes, looking for bones.
Randy called over to Theisen, urging him to come look at an area that was littered with bone fragments. Theisen drew closer and spotted three objects that sent his heart racing.
The first looked like a cervical vertebra. The second appeared to be an occipital bone from the base of a skull. The third, the clincher, was a piece of jawbone no larger than the palm of his hand. The bone was distinctively grooved where the teeth had been. Big, meat-shredding teeth, from six to twelve inches in length.
Theisen knew of only one creature with foot-long chompers that roamed the Lance Formation of eastern Wyoming -- a beast so fierce that early fossil hunters called it the "tyrant lizard king."
"Do you know what this is?" Theisen asked.
Randy shook his head.
"This is a T. rex," Theisen said.
Randy's partner was summoned to hear the tremendous news. Finding a Tyrannosaurus rex is every fossil hunter's elusive dream. At the time, only 22 T. rex specimens had been found, and in only two cases had more than 50 percent of the skeleton been recovered. The pieces Theisen had spotted were significant, and who knew how much more of the creature might be buried below?
The shock of the discovery was still sinking in, Theisen says, when his two companions "started acting funny." Theisen knew that big finds on a dig sometimes produced odd behavior -- "People get weird, like they won the lottery or something," he explains -- but this was different. The men exchanged hinky glances, looked around nervously for passing cars. They did not warm to Theisen's suggestion that they go talk to the landowner right away.
It began to dawn on Theisen that maybe Randy and his friend didn't have the landowner's permission to be collecting fossils after all. If that was the case, then Theisen had bought stolen goods from them, and his mere presence at the site made him an unwitting accomplice to yet another crime.
In the T. rex registry compiled by the Black Hills Institute, Leon Theisen is listed as the discoverer of Specimen #23. But Theisen is quick to point out that he merely identified what Randy had already stumbled upon. "It wasn't me that discovered it," he says. "It was one of the other trespassers."
It was a fitting beginning to the strange dealings that would soon engulf Theisen's find -- controversies and legal squabbles that continue to this day, with no hint of resolution. Discovered by people who had no legal claim to it, the T. rex has been on a rampage ever since. The fossil has become a magnet for lawsuits and intrigue, for hush-hush transactions and mind-boggling expense. It has been hailed as a significant find by some experts, denounced as an overvalued assembly of fragments by others. Its ownership is being contested in Denver's federal court, and its very existence has been challenged in a divorce case in California. For now, at least, its odyssey may reveal more about the pitfalls of the modern fossil business than it does about life as the king of predators eons ago.
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.
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."
An investor who deals in a wide range of collectibles and art objects, from Japanese swords to paintings to ancient pottery, Miller had paid attention to the Sue debacle. He saw it as a cautionary tale: Yes, there was money that could be made with the right T. rex, but you had to be damned sure you had the question of ownership straightened out first.
Miller had never dealt in big-ticket fossils; it was an entirely different market from the art world he knew. Early last year, though, another Denver dealer came to him with an intriguing proposition. The man told him he was working as an agent for Mark Newman, a New York fossil dealer who had a T. rex for sale.
According to the agent, the T. rex had been recently excavated from a ranch in Wyoming by a respected fossil hunter named Japheth Boyce, who was now preparing the bones for display in his shop in South Dakota. Boyce and Newman were planning to sell the bones at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the largest annual gathering of fossil people, in February 2000. Miller could purchase them first, the agent suggested, for $400,000, plus a finder's fee for the agent.
The offer was tempting for several reasons. First, the specimen in question was said to have 25 percent of its skeleton; only seven or eight T. rexes, including Sue and Z-rex, could boast a greater percentage of bones. Second, the price included the cost of preparing the fossil for display, as well as a full-sized resin cast of an adult T. rex skeleton from the Black Hills Institute (such casts cost upwards of $100,000). Plus, the bulk of the money would not be due until the restoration was completed; consequently, Miller's investment would not be tied up for long before he could recoup it by taking the fossil to auction.
Miller decided to put up $10,000 in earnest money. On March 15, 2000, he paid Newman an additional $40,000 in down payment, with the rest of the sale price due upon completion of the preparation work and production of records detailing the history of the fossil's ownership. By that point, Miller had formed a limited partnership, Ty Rex LLC, which consisted of several investors, to fund the purchase.
Michael Grano, a Denver computer specialist and former art dealer who became one of Miller's investors, says the sales contract was structured so that Newman was required to provide a detailed provenance for the fossil. "My concern from day one was title and whether we could sell this thing," he says. "I had been following the Sue story very carefully, and my initial questions were, 'Is it from private land? Do you have good title?' And we were assured that the title was dead-solid perfect."
For weeks after the deal was signed, Miller made phone calls to Newman demanding the ownership records he'd agreed to provide. When no documents came, Miller and his attorney started firing off letters. The initial response was a skimpy letter from Boyce, which stated that Boyce had bought the bones from the landowner, a Wyoming rancher named Robert Stoddard, and sold them to Newman. When Miller pressed for more details, he was informed that Boyce had bought the bones from a "gentleman collector," who'd acquired them from Stoddard.
When did this take place? Who was the "gentleman collector"? Boyce didn't say.
The wrangling went on for months. Much to the dismay of the Denver investors, Boyce still refused to disclose the name of the collector who'd once had an ownership interest in the dinosaur. Eventually, the impasse would prompt Ty Rex to file suit against Newman and Boyce, claiming the pair had misrepresented their find and that Newman had breached his contract by failing to produce records. (Last month, Newman and Boyce filed counterclaims against Miller and Ty Rex, alleging that the group has pursued "frivolous and spurious claims" in an effort to avoid paying the $350,000 balance owed for the purchase.) The immediate effect of the lack of documents, however, was to cloud Ty Rex's hopes of a quick auction of the fossil.
Within days of signing the deal with Newman, Miller and his group had contacted at least three major auction houses -- Christie's, Sotheby's and Butterfield's -- about their T. rex. Butterfield's, the only house that regularly features natural-history items, expressed an interest in marketing Barnum.
"My whole strategy was to get an agreement with Butterfield's," Grano says, "and send it off to auction for anything over half a million. They were very excited; everything sounded great to them. Then it all got screwed up."
How it all got screwed up isn't entirely clear, because Newman, Miller and Butterfield's Herskowitz tell different stories. Newman says he told Miller before the sale that Boyce didn't want the fossil to be sold at auction. Miller denies that there was ever any formal understanding on that point.
"Our idea was to buy it and try to sell it to make some money," Miller says now. "They knew that from the get-go. There was some resistance, particularly from Boyce, to the idea of us auctioning the thing, but there was never a hard and fast stipulation not to do so. Newman at one point told me that he didn't care what we did with the damn thing, just don't tell Boyce. The implication was that Boyce didn't want his former partner, or whoever he got the specimen from, to know what he had sold it for."
Grano and Miller say that Butterfield's abruptly lost interest in the T. rex after Newman called Herskowitz and claimed that Ty Rex was in no position to strike a deal because he still owned the item in question. (According to the contract, Newman had transferred ownership to Miller on March 15 for $50,000 and a promissory note for the remaining $350,000.) Newman insists his phone call didn't amount to a deal-breaker, and Herskowitz agrees. But in any case, the auction house's ardor quickly cooled, and concerns about ownership claims -- if not Newman's, then those of possible third parties -- were at the heart of the sudden turnabout.
Grano remembers a call from a Butterfield's attorney, who suggested that the title questions surrounding Barnum were more complicated than they initially appeared: "He said there was a rumor going around about a woman, someone's ex-wife, who was out there looking for a T. rex that supposedly belonged to her."
The day after he found the T. rex, Leon Theisen drove back to the site. This time he brought his old friend Peter Larson, the onetime owner of Sue, who confirmed that Theisen had indeed found pieces of a Tyrannosaurus rex. He also brought global-positioning-system equipment to record the precise location of the find.
Theisen and Larson then went to the courthouse to figure out who owned the land. The place belonged to a ranching couple, Robert and Gail Stoddard. Theisen called Bob Stoddard and explained about the box of bones, the T. rex, the two men and his suspicions about trespassing. Stoddard said Randy and his friend didn't have permission to collect fossils on the ranch.
Theisen warned Stoddard that the men would probably be back, seeking to strike a deal to hunt fossils on his land while conveniently neglecting to mention their discovery. "Sure enough, one of these guys showed up with a contract for him to sign, and it made no mention of the fact that we'd already found a T. rex," Theisen says.
Stoddard didn't sign. Theisen lost track of the two trespassers after a heated conversation with Randy's partner, who accused him of "trying to screw us out of our T. rex." Over the next few days Theisen himself made several trips to see Bob Stoddard. Despite the awkward beginning, Theisen was keenly interested in excavating the T. rex. He brought Stoddard written proposals, urged him to check with other dealers about the matter, and asked if he could have the opportunity to match any competing offers the rancher might receive. Stoddard seemed interested and promised to keep in touch.
But Theisen never heard from Stoddard again. From other people in the business, he soon learned that another South Dakota fossil hunter, Japh Boyce, was digging that particular T. rex.
Theisen didn't know what kind of deal Boyce had made with Stoddard. Months later, though, he discovered that the T. rex had apparently been spoken for even before it was found. That revelation came to him as the result of a chance encounter at the Denver Gem and Mineral Show, a show Theisen regularly attended as an exhibitor.
"There was this -- I'll hold back on the adjective -- this fellow walking down the aisle, with entourage in tow," Theisen recalls. "He was waving his arms in the air and saying, 'I can see it now: John Bolan Presents...T. rex!' So I knew who he was, but he didn't know who I was."
Theisen had heard about Bolan through the grapevine. He was said to be an investment banker from California and an "armchair" fossil collector who paid other people to do the digging and the prep work. He also had a ranch in eastern Wyoming, next door to Stoddard's place, and had hired Japh Boyce to prepare specimens for him.
Bolan stopped at Theisen's table to admire his fossils. After some conversation, Bolan realized that he was talking to the man who'd found the T. rex on his friend Stoddard's ranch. According to Theisen, Bolan started to needle him about the box of bones he'd bought from the trespassers and his efforts to persuade Stoddard to let him excavate the T. rex.
"He came within a heartbeat of getting his pompous ass bounced out of my room," Theisen says. "He told me that he'd already had a previous agreement with Bob to collect the fossils on his land, so there was never a chance that I was going to get to dig that T. rex. That clued me in that Bob Stoddard had wasted my time, writing up proposals and all that crap. He didn't mind wasting my time to get information that he could use."
After months of conference calls, demand letters and consultations with experts, the Ty Rex investors managed to put together pieces of the story regarding their acquisition's troubled past and current prospects. But some of the pieces were still missing, and the story kept changing.
Not everything about the fossil business is written in stone. The investors couldn't be quite sure what it was they'd bought or what its scientific or commercial value might be; it all depended on who you asked.
In the sale agreement, Newman guaranteed delivery of no less than 25 percent of a T. rex skeleton, measured by volume. But at the time the deal was struck, many of the bones were still buried in a rock matrix Boyce had dug out of the ground. Once removed from the matrix, the bones proved to be more fragmentary and less complete than expected -- from 16 to 20 percent, depending on whether the calculation is based on volume, bone count, the "weighted value" of significant bones or some other form of measurement.
Newman had promised to make up the difference by supplying other T. rex bones. Early on, Miller had even bought some tyrannosaur teeth and a jawbone from Newman for an additional $19,600, with the aim of making Barnum more presentable. But Miller subsequently learned from experts he consulted that mixing in pieces from another specimen could "compromise the integrity" and lower the value of his fossil. He began to doubt the wisdom of assembling a composite T. rex -- particularly after another dealer told him that the jawbone he'd bought was worth no more than $5,000.
Figuring Barnum's worth without the extra parts was no easy matter, either. Ty Rex asked Robert T. Bakker, the iconoclastic Boulder paleontologist who consults on Spielberg movies and dino-mation theme parks, to appraise Barnum. Using Z-Rex as a benchmark, Bakker concluded that Barnum has roughly a third as many "high-value bones" -- skull, jaws, teeth, toes and claws -- as the more highly touted Z-Rex and thus an estimated value of a million dollars.
Another appraiser informed Ty Rex's principals that their fossil was worth the purchase price, $400,000, but only because they'd set the value by agreeing to pay so much. Miller's group vigorously challenged that appraiser's methods and conclusions, but his lowball opinion is echoed in other quarters. "To be honest, I think they paid way too much for it," says Herskowitz.
The true value of a fossil depends on several factors besides the number and condition of the bones, including the uniqueness of the specimen, how it's prepared and displayed, and its provenance, or "back story." Scientific merit doesn't always translate into commercial value -- a big, scary meat-eater is usually worth more than an herbivorous dinosaur, even if the latter is better preserved or more unusual -- but museums and high-end collectors do attach a great deal of importance to the scientific context of a particular specimen, including where it was found and what light its discovery may shed on matters of prehistoric life and death.
Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute says that Barnum may rank "in the bottom half" of thirty known T. rex specimens in terms of completeness, but he believes the fossil still has some interesting features going for it. "It's got quite a bit of the skull, and any time you're looking at a dinosaur, the skull is the most important part," he notes. The bones also include gastralia (stomach ribs and supports) that are rarely found in T. rex digs.
Equally important in Larson's view is the location of the find. The first T. rex ever discovered was dug out of eastern Wyoming by Barnum Brown in 1900, but few rexes have turned up in the Lance Creek area since. "It's a puzzling thing, why we don't see more of these guys from Wyoming," Larson says. "There's been intensive collecting in the area for a hundred years, but we know of only four or five specimens, while in South Dakota we're now finding one a year. It's a line of inquiry we need to pursue."
In a letter provided to Ty Rex recounting details of the excavation process, Japh Boyce describes aspects of the find that set Barnum apart from other T. rexes. The excavation spanned several summers and was "miserable work," he writes, since it involved moving large amounts of earth in order not to damage fragile, acid-etched bones trapped in boggy, shifting soil: "The dinosaur planned his death poorly and ended up in a fossil as well as a modern mud hole."
The first year's efforts were plagued by damp weather and early snowstorms. The following spring, the site had dried out enough to recover "good bones," but the yield soon dropped off dramatically. Still, Boyce found remains of duck-billed dinosaurs and other T. rex bones in what appeared to be Barnum's stomach contents, as well as the presence of coprolites -- fossilized excrement -- that suggested Barnum's corpse had been fed upon by other consumers. Pathologies in the bones reinforced the impression that life in the cretaceous period tended to be nasty, brutish and short, a rex-eat-rex struggle for survival.
But Boyce did not offer Ty Rex much documentation about the dig to back up his observations. Miller's group pressed Newman to supply "dig data": grid maps, field notes, photos and videos of the excavation process. Although Boyce claimed that he works primarily with the scientific community, Newman responded that Boyce "is foremost a fossil dealer, not an academic paleontologist. Therefore, it is unlikely that he takes detailed notes of his excavations."
Ultimately, Boyce and Newman did provide a few snapshots. "As for diggers like Mr. Boyce and myself, we don't have the time to take extensive notes nor time for pretty pictures," Newman wrote. "We locate, find, dig and get out.... Writing detailed notes regarding site data may leave yourself open to other persons invading and pillaging your dig."
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."
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.
Scathing reviews of the Triceratops Ranch experience have been posted at one fossil enthusiast's Web site. A hunter describes how his son found part of a hadrosaur jaw and spent the day excavating it. The hunter offered Bolan $600 for the piece, which his guide, Japh Boyce, had said was worth $1,000 if properly prepared.
According to the hunter, "Bolan said it was worth $2,500 and we could not have it. It was reported to us at this point that the party from a very well-known science magazine who found a triceratops horn and a party from a well-known science company could not have [the items they] found. At this point, my son and I [realized] that this marvelous chance for a father/son experience and $2,000 in expenses had come to a very bitter end."
The Triceratops Ranch business didn't shed any light on why Bolan had been such an exceedingly silent partner in the Barnum deal. But after considerable effort, the Ty Rex investors located a woman in California who had a possible solution to the mystery.
Her name was Christine Bolan. She was the former wife of John Bolan, and she'd been looking for a missing T. rex for years.
As far as his ex-wife knows, John Bolan started collecting fossils in earnest shortly before their 1991 marriage. Every few months he would leave their home in Southern California, where John operated a business called Structured Finance Company of America, and make the rounds of the gem shows or head for the Dakota badlands on digging expeditions.
He usually brought something back. "Our house looked like a museum," Christine Bolan says.
In 1994, John Bolan bought the property that would become Triceratops Ranch, making sure that fossil rights were included in the sale. Christine says he told her he was leasing the ranch; she didn't find out he had paid $225,000 for the place until she came across the paperwork several years later. It was that kind of marriage, she says: John handled all the finances while she kept busy raising their young son.
Bolan did tell his wife about the fossil found on the Stoddard ranch in 1995. "He told me he'd found it, that it was his T. rex," she recalls, "and that he and Japh were partners. I was concerned because they were going to spend a large amount of money to excavate it. He told me it was well worth it because, judging from what they already knew was there, it would pay for the excavation."
In the spring of 1996, shortly before his annual trip to Wyoming, Bolan had bright yellow T-shirts made for the dig team. "JB 1996 T-REX DIG LANCE FORMATION WYOMING, USA," they read. "JB" was the name Bolan had given the dinosaur -- short for John Bolan and Japh Boyce. Christine has seen photos of the team working in their T-shirts and a videotape of Boyce explaining the excavation process. "Isn't it bizarre that they've said they have no photographs or videos of the dig?" she asks.
Christine disputes her husband's assertion that he sold his interest in the T. rex in early 1997. She has a copy of a memo from her husband to Boyce dated March 11, 1997, in which he notes that the T. rex "should be finished up this summer and sold at an auction or maybe Tucson in February." That May, she says, Bolan went on his usual trip to Wyoming to join in the excavation.
The couple separated shortly after Bolan's return. In the acrimonious divorce that followed, Christine sought to establish that the fossils Bolan had acquired during the marriage were community property. "Unfortunately, I let John take all the fossils from our house," she says. "He told the court they didn't exist or that all these photographs and videos I had were of replicas. He said the T. rex didn't exist."
To back up his claim, John Bolan produced a letter signed by Robert Stoddard that stated Bolan had paid him $5,000 "to trespass my ranch in search of dinosaurs.... To this date nothing significant has been recovered." The letter was dated October 4, 1999, long after the principal excavation had been completed. Bolan also obtained a letter from Japh Boyce stating that Boyce's only fossil sales to Bolan had been in 1990.
Christine fought back. She had found a draft of an agreement an attorney had drawn up for John, stating that Boyce and Bolan had each paid $5,000 to Stoddard "to control the excavation, preparation, marketing and sale of the T. rex," and that all three would share equally in any profits. In a deposition, John Bolan described the document as a "potential" agreement that was never executed because "we never found the T. rex."
Larry Williams, a fossil hunter and sculptor of steel dinosaurs who'd done extensive work for Bolan, testified on Christine's behalf. Williams had visited Bolan in Wyoming and had seen the T. rex excavation in progress. He'd also seen pieces of the fossil -- now known as RJB, after Boyce's business, RJB Rock Shop -- on display at Boyce's booth at the 1998 Tucson gem show.
Williams describes Boyce as "a fine digger, sleuth and preparator -- and he's ethical, too." But Williams says he had a falling-out with John Bolan over his treatment of visitors to Triceratops Ranch and other issues.
"I'm happy to be on bad terms with him," Williams adds. "He's got no knowledge of paleontology and no respect for it, really. But he's got the power to buy. All in all, people in the fossil community tend to be ethical and accountable. John Bolan's an exception to the rule."
Christine charges that Boyce has been "covering" for her ex throughout the T. rex affair. She believes that the shifting stories about when her husband was involved in the deal are part of an effort to conceal the fact that he still had an interest in the fossil, a marital asset, at the time the couple separated.
"I think John is a key part of this whole thing, but nobody is going to say anything about it," she says. "You've got to realize that Japh Boyce makes a ton of money because of John, who's paid him to restore numerous fossils and to dig for him."
The divorce decree in the case of Bolan v. Bolan contains an unusual clause, even by California standards: "As to the disputed existence of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, commonly referred to as JB, if it has been partially excavated and is found somewhere, it belongs to Mrs. Bolan at no charge."
The judge signed that order on March 14, 2000 -- one day before Mark Newman sold JB, alias RJB, also known as Barnum, to Jeff Miller.
Recently, Christine Bolan received a letter from Newman's attorney asking her to sign a waiver of any interest she might have in some T. rex "bone remnants" found in Wyoming. She has no intention of signing such a document without fair compensation.
"All I want is my share of it to help take care of my son," she says. "You think this T. rex is a dupe? This is only one portion of what I was duped out of in all the years I was with the man."
John Bolan declined to comment for this story. Japh Boyce refers all questions about his T. rex dealings to his attorney.
"I wish I had more information," Boyce says. "I just don't. I don't know as much about it as everybody thinks."
Ed Ramey, the Denver attorney representing Boyce and Newman in the Ty Rex lawsuit, says the latest version of Barnum's ownership provided by his clients is as complete and accurate as possible.
"What all the mystery about Bolan was, I have no clue," Ramey says. "I have seen these earlier representations of what was going on. It was stupid. Everybody on our side of the table is admitting that it was stupid. From what I can tell, Bolan's involvement was very minor."
However, the assertions of Ramey's clients are contradicted not only by Christine Bolan, but by Bob Stoddard. In an interview with Westword, the rancher took issue with several of Boyce's claims about Bolan's role in the project.
After the T. rex was found on his land, Stoddard says, he was besieged with dozens of offers to purchase the fossil while it was still in the ground. But he already had an arrangement with Bolan, who had "exclusive" rights to hunt fossils on the Stoddard ranch in exchange for leasing cattle-grazing rights to the Stoddards. It was Bolan who brought Boyce into the deal, the rancher says, and he denies ever buying Bolan's share of the partnership, as Boyce claims.
"Boyce and Bolan were still involved when I got out," Stoddard says. He sold his share in 1999 -- and subsequently wrote the letter in Bolan's divorce case stating that "nothing significant" had been found -- because it was his understanding that the excavation had produced far less than expected. He no longer leases grazing rights from Bolan and has terminated Bolan's claim to fossils found on his land.
"You live and learn," he says. "I could have made a more substantial deal than I did, but I know very little about fossils. We know where some more are, but I'm not going to deal with John Bolan anymore."
Ramey concedes that the "informal arrangements" between the parties makes it difficult to know who's telling the truth. "I see no documents showing any of these guys were in or out of the deal," he says. "But we've offered to stand behind the provenance we've given Mr. Miller and to indemnify him against any claims contrary to that. We even offered to let them out of the deal. I'm having a great deal of difficulty figuring out what Mr. Miller wants."
As for Christine Bolan, Ramey says, "If she has a claim, she could certainly assert it and we'll deal with her. There isn't a lot of money there. This isn't Sue."
Newman insists the title problems have been greatly exaggerated. "I could put it in an auction tomorrow if I wanted to," he says. "Bottom line, I don't think the guys have the money to pay. We offered indemnification. That should have closed the deal for them right there."
But Ty Rex's Grano says the offer is meaningless. "Mark Newman could offer to indemnify us for $10 million, and if he doesn't have the assets, what's the point?" he asks.
Miller says his group wants more than just its money back. The investors have suffered substantial damages as a result of the other side's misrepresentations, he claims, including mounting legal fees and the lost opportunity to sell Barnum at auction.
"We are still interested in the property, but the fossil community is very small," Miller says. "Everybody knows everybody else. This process has tainted the specimen in a way. We can't sell it as easily or for as much money as we'd hoped because of these title issues."
David Herskowitz, the Butterfield's expert, would love to help sell Barnum if the title issues are resolved. "It's definitely marketable," he says. "But people who buy fossils want to deal with someone who really knows the business. I've seen people try to broker deals who know nothing about fossils. They're trying to jump on a bandwagon that isn't there."
Back in South Dakota, Leon Theisen doesn't regret getting shut out of the action around the T. rex he found. "I just said goodbye and good riddance," he says. "There are other dinosaurs to dig, other fossils to find."
He adds, "My understanding is that it's not really that great a specimen. But even a bad T. rex is a wonderful thing."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Pot Shops That Sell to Minors Hurt the Whole Industry and Here's Why
Fri., Oct. 9, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 2:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 5:00pm
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00pm
- Bet the Local Record Store Named One of America's Best Will Surprise You
- Dear Mexican: What Is the Bolo Tradition for Godparents?