A 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue, said to be the largest and most complete theropod ever found, will be auctioned off at Sotheby's in New York City on 4 October. The bones have spent the past 5 years stashed in crates because of a legal battle over their ownership. But now that Sue, found in 1990 in South Dakota, is going on the block, scientists are worried that the as-yet-unstudied fossils may pass into private hands. "There's a lot of unease about this," says paleontologist Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Ironically, Sue was seized by the federal government in 1992 to ensure that the creature would be accessible to science. The bones were discovered on a South Dakota Indian reservation by commercial fossil hunters from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. Although the institute paid the landowner, Maurice Williams, a Cheyenne River Sioux, $5000 to excavate the fossil, federal officials seized the bones, claiming that it hadn't been determined that they were rightfully taken, according to Roy Pulfrey, an engineer at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Williams holds his land in a tax-free trust arrangement with the federal government, which means government permission is required to sell it or what's under it, says Pulfrey. After confiscating Sue, the government charged institute head Peter Larson with numerous felonies related to trafficking in illegally excavated fossils. He was convicted for not reporting international financial transactions, for which he received a 2-year sentence, last year. Meanwhile, the courts finally decreed that Williams is the rightful owner of Sue.
Larson's institute intended to restore the skeleton, which once housed a 9-ton dinosaur, and put it on public view at its own museum. But now Williams is putting Sue up for grabs. Sotheby's hopes to keep the fossils in the public realm by promising museums three interest-free years to pay what is expected to be a very high price. "As far as I know, there's never been a test on the open market of what Tyrannosaurus rex would fetch," says Dodson. A Texas fossil dealer is advertising a T. rex--only 70% complete--at $12 million, and Sue could fetch much more.