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Bone to pick: Is the dinosaur fossil investment craze over?

  • April 18, 2023

Who wouldn’t want a T. rex? You can scare the neighbors with one. Or you can charge admission to see it. Plus, they are extremely rare and will only go up in value, right? But are fossilized bones really a good investment?

Investing in ancient specimens is not for everyone and there are a few things to think about. One good thing is they are hard to steal. A triceratops skull wouldn’t fit in a burglar’s backpack. This also means they are hard to move around and you’ll need lots of space.

The Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi surely had all this in mind when it bid $31.8 million (€29.8 million) for the 67-million-year-old Stan the T. rex at a Christie’s auction in 2020. It is the most expensive fossil ever to be sold at auction and well above its $6-8 million estimate.

The museum, which is set to open in 2025, has the resources to display the 37-foot-long (11 meters), 13-foot-tall male skeleton. Made up of 188 bones with additional cast elements, it was originally found in South Dakota in 1987.

 Stan the T. rex skull displayed before auction at Christie's
Stan the T. rex made history after being sold for nearly $30 millionImage: Mary Altaffer/AP Photo/picture alliance

Most of the 50-plus Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons discovered since 1902 are in natural history museums, which is not many when considering that around 2.5 billion of them roamed Earth over a 2.4-million-year period.

Buyers beware of dino-mania

Christie’s isn’t the only place to get expensive bones. Sotheby’s, Drouot and Heritage Auctions have also exceeded the million-dollar mark with recent sales, sometimes when only a fraction of the original bones were available. 

Yet two auctions late last year have caused concern. Christie’s stopped the planned sale of a T. rex days before it was set to hit the market in Hong Kong. That possible $25-million sale was halted after experts highlighted the number of replica bones included as part of the skeleton. 

Using reproductions to complete skeletons is quite common. But buyers may have been scared because a few weeks later there was another major disappointment. A T. rex that Sotheby’s estimated could bring in $20 million sold for a lowly $6.1 million.

Authenticity, provenance and paperwork

There are many smaller options for buying fossils besides a flashy T. rex, stegosaurus or triceratops. Auction houses, dealers and specialty shops are trying to convince collectors and investors to look closer at natural history specimens like fossilized eggs, oversized teeth, meteorites, minerals or even strands of mammoth hair. Though they are not as eye-catching as a full-scale dino, they are still a part of history and in some cases quite rare. 

Claudia Florian, from Bonhams auction house
Claudia Florian, a trained gemologist, has turned her attention to rare minerals and fossilsImage: Bonhams

“Fossils are rare because certain conditions need to be present in order for a plant or animal to be preserved,” Claudia Florian, consulting director of Bonhams’ natural history department in Los Angeles, told DW. “The organism needs to undergo a rapid burial in an undisturbed fashion so that it is preserved and fossilized.” Add to that a sense of adventure and the enormous amount of backbreaking work involved in finding and excavating such fossils and they become even more intriguing.

In a short tutorial, Bonhams laid out some tips for buyers. Quality, how well something is preserved and completeness are major factors to take into account. Authenticity, provenance and paperwork proving that a specimen was legally excavated are also important.

“Rarity, completeness and condition can affect pricing at auction,” said Florian who has over 39 years of experience. “Fossils, particularly the highly aesthetic ones sold at public auction, are available in short supply and are likely to increase in value over the long term.”

During the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, people started to invest with gusto in nontraditional assets like cryptocurrencies, wine, sneakers, NFTs (nonfungible tokens), or collectibles and sports cards. Now that things are slowly getting back to normal, the question is will investors go back to traditional assets and leave others behind?

Seeing the beauty in old bones

Bonhams, which now has 14 salerooms around the world, is trying to make inroads into the natural history market. Last year their auctions brought in over $1 billion for the first time, a 27% increase over the previous year. Of the total, around $4 million came from its 11 natural history auctions, three of which included fossils.

A 22-foot-long triceratops replica skeleton at auction
This 22-foot-long triceratops replica skeleton can be yours on June 7 for $30,000-$50,000 at BonhamsImage: Bonhams

Florian is cautiously optimistic yet sees big opportunities. “The fossil market has seen a large upswing in pricing during the last three to five years due to increased interest on the part of the public and consequently increased demand,” she said. But warns, “there may be a leveling off in the next year or two at the wholesale and public auction level, particularly if there is an economic slowdown or recession.”

To show how prices have increased Florian points to two examples. The first is a cave bear skull sold in New York for $4,750 in 2012. A similar skull was sold in 2022 bringing in well over $26,000 in Paris. Another example is a single T. rex tooth that sold for $11,250 in 2013. Nine years later, a similar tooth sold for nearly double the price. Even high-end replica skeletons are gaining popularity for those who cannot afford large original specimens, according to Florian.

Some important investment tips

As with any investment, when looking into fossils big or small there are some general rules:

Do your homework. The more information you have about what is out there the better. Not all fossils are rare and there are any number of fakes. Sometimes items have been restored, substantially altered or simply identified incorrectly. 

Buy the best you can afford and don’t put all of your eggs — especially dinosaur eggs — into one basket. Diversity is always a good investment plan.

Buy things with a proven track record and a clear chain of ownership. Though this won’t guarantee future success, it will give some guidance.

A researcher uncovering dinosaur bones in Argentina
A lot of hard work usually goes into finding and preserving dinosaur fossilsImage: Jose Luis Carballido/CTyS-UNLaM/AFP

For really important fossils make sure you get the reproduction rights. Just because you own the actual skeleton does not automatically mean you own the trademark. In the case of Abu Dhabi’s Stan, the new owners cannot make reproductions. This right belongs to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, which has already sold numerous casts of the famous T. rex.

Finally, buyers need to put a lot of trust in sellers. This can be hard in a scientific field where experts still argue over the total number of bones that a T. rex actually had. Was it 300 or 380? With questions like this still unanswered it is important to know who you are buying from.

In the end, even if the fossils you buy don’t bring in millions, they are still a bold investment that will impress the neighbors.

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

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