How many living rooms can accommodate a giant duckbill dinosaur skeleton? Not many, it seems, judging from the paltry bidding at an auction of fossils last week in New York. Dozens of potential bidders shied away from some high starting prices, a far cry from the scene 7 years ago, when Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex was auctioned off for $7.6 million.
That sale, to Chicago's Field Museum, raised the specter that fossils would become unaffordable to most museums and universities. (The museum used a donation from McDonald's Corp. to purchase Sue.) It also made illicit trading more attractive, says Hans Sues, associate director for research and collections at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Ever since Sue, he says, "people plunder sites" for valuable fossils.
But based on the fossil auction at Guernsey's, one of the largest to date, the thirst for expensive fossils may be cooling. The duckbill dinosaur's starting price of $300,000 failed to impress the audience; jaws from an ancient shark, a megadolon, didn't spark interest at $400,000, nor did a conchoraptor skeleton from China, starting at $25,000. "The dinosaur craze has waned," says Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland, who attended the auction and considered some starting prices "astronomical" and "well beyond the grasp" of museums and universities. The top seller was a 1844 humpback whale skeleton, which sailed off the auction block at $160,000.
The auction reinforced fears that fossils are being exported illegally. Although China forbids exporting fossils except for certain temporary exhibits, says Sues, several of Guernsey's fossils were Chinese. It is not illegal to import them into the United States, however, nor to sell them. A Guernsey's spokesperson says none of the fossils had been illegally taken from their country of origin for the auction.