Mystery Dinosaur Skeleton Sold for $2.3M—and Paleontologists Are Furious

Paris auction house Aguttes has sold a mysterious nearly complete dinosaur skeleton for more than $2.3 million, Reuters has reported. Aguttes called the specimen a “new species,” but some scientists have questioned this claim.

The sale of the 30-foot theropod has sparked an outcry among some paleontologists, who argue the well-preserved specimen—new species or not—may now be “lost to science.”

6_6_Dinosaur Auction The dinosaur fossil is displayed at the Eiffel Tower, ahead of its auction, in Paris, on June 2. Paris auction house Aguttes has sold the mysterious, nearly complete dinosaur skeleton for more than $2.3 million. Philippe Wojazer TPX/Reuters

The specimen’s completeness makes it “very rare,” paleontologist and Aguttes adviser Eric Mickeler told The Guardian. The specimen was “fantastic,” he added, “With an extraordinary skull, lots of teeth and the claws.”

Some paleontologists have said the creature is a member of a new species, possibly within the Allosaurus genus of large, bipedal dinosaurs. But others have said this claim is rubbish. “It's just hype—they're just trying to get a higher price for it," biologist Thomas Carr, of Carthage College in Wisconsin, told Live Science. "It looks no different from any Allosaurus that I've ever seen."

If the dinosaur isn’t made available to researchers, scientists may never officially identify its species.

Auctioneer Claude Aguttes said the specimen may end up on display in a museum. According to Reuters, he said, “The buyer is French, and he told me before the sale...‘If I get it, I would present it to the public.’... Everyone will be able to see it, it will soon be lent to a museum, it will be studied by scientists, everything is perfect.”

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But paleontologists with the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) disputed this claim in a strongly worded letter sent to Aguttes before the auction.

Society president P. David Polly and colleagues wrote: “Even if made accessible to scientists, information contained within privately owned specimens cannot be included in the scientific literature, because the availability of the fossil material to other scientists cannot be guaranteed, and therefore verification of scientific claims (the essence of scientific progress) cannot be performed.”

When fossils are held by private owners, there is no telling where they might end up, Paul Barrett, merit researcher at London’s Natural History Museum, told Newsweek. Although some owners make great effort to keep their specimens accessible to the public, Barrett said, others disappear into obscurity. He even knew of cases when disgruntled ex-partners had thrown out their former spouse's old fossil collections following a messy divorce.

Related: Horny Triceratops: Dinosaurs developed frills and horns to woo a mate

The SVP was even stronger in its claims, writing, “Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science.”

Although the auction of fossils is not unusual—museums, for example, may purchase fossils in this way—aesthetic interest in the specimens is driving up their price. “There is genuine interest among private individuals in these as nice objects to have in your home or your corporate headquarters, or as an investment,” Barrett said. “Unfortunately for science, these objects are now starting to move into the same realms as fine art.”

Polly echoed Barrett's concern, telling Newsweek: "Fossils are not objects of art. Their value comes not from the creativity of a human being, but from the historical processes of life itself. Fossils that reveal new exciting things about the history of life should be placed in the public trust for everyone to enjoy. Museum quality replicas are what should be auctioned."

Related: How did 1-ton dinosaurs sit on their eggs without squashing them?

Other paleontologists were also disheartened by this latest auction result. Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh told Newsweek he was “very saddened” by the sale. “I respect that [it] was completely legal,” Brusatte said, “but if dinosaurs are fetching this much money as commodities on the open market, then there is no way museums can afford these prices.”

“This skeleton is so compete and well-preserved that it belongs in a museum, so people can see it and get inspired by it, and scientists can study it,” he added. “I hope there is a change in the culture where people with the means and the interest in buying these dinosaurs will instead purchase them for museums instead of keeping them for themselves.”

This article has been updated to include comment from P. David Polly.

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