Planet Earth

Dinosaurs on the Block

By Sarah WitmanAug 18, 2004 5:00 AM


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Clayton Phipps was not the typical person you’d expect to see at a high-powered auction in New York City. The 31-year-old Montana cowboy, dressed in black hat, red bandanna, and boots, clearly had little to do with the aristocratic surroundings of Park Avenue. Still, he seemed perfectly comfortable with his role there. A man with a burning interest in paleontology, he had come to convert his fossil finds into cold cash at a controversial dinosaur auction held in late June at the Park Avenue Armory.

Courtesy of Clayton Phipps

Amateur paleontologist and Montana cowboy Clayton Phipps discovered this Stygimoloch skull while driving cattle in the Badlands. It is the only known complete Stygimoloch skull.

Phipps was selling the skull of a Stygimoloch, a 7-to-10-foot-long plant-eating dinosaur that probably butted its broad head with others of its kind approximately 66 million years ago. He’d discovered the bone a year earlier while taking a week’s vacation with a group of amateur paleontologists, in an area of the Badlands that he’d eyed as a potential fossil site while driving cattle the previous fall. It was a fantastic find, and he still tells the story with relish: “I just happened to be the first one out of the pickup, and I walked around the corner of Gumbo Butte. I looked up, and about 50 feet away I saw the round dome, the top of the skull sticking out of the ground.”

At first Phipps thought he had found a dinosaur gastrolith—a common gizzard stone—but as he saw bumps and protrusions around the dome, he realized that he had found a skull. Storm clouds threatened in the distance, so he and his companions worked quickly yet carefully over the next four hours to dig around the skull and protect it with a plaster coat before loading it into their pickup. They then hired a professional fossil preparer to restore the skull. Paleontologist Robert Bakker later confirmed that Phipps had found the only known complete Stygimoloch skull.

Phipps’s discovery had all the elements of a great adventure story, so Guernsey’s auction house, which ran the sale, lavished attention on him and his find. For Phipps, however, the tale was more about basic economic necessity. He was initially reluctant to part with the skull, but didn’t have much of a choice. “Selling this is going to be one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do. What would you do with a gold nugget if you found one in your backyard?” he asks. Keeping the skull wasn’t an option: Phipps would have to buy out the property owner’s 50-percent stake in the skull, something he could not afford to do. With a reasonable sum from the sale of the skull, on the other hand, Phipps could study paleontology and set up a college fund for his 6-year-old daughter and newborn son. Still, he worries about where the Stygimoloch skull will end up. He would like to see it become part of a museum collection, but in an auction he has no say regarding who might buy it.

That is precisely the problem that many paleontologists have with the fossil auction trade. “Many, many things have just disappeared into private hands,” says University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno. “Generations forget what they are, and the data are lost.” Dinosaur auctions such as the June 24 event at the Park Avenue Armory have captured the popular imagination since the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen named Sue sold for more than $8 million in a 1997 Sotheby’s auction, eventually ending up in the Field Museum in Chicago. The Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, a professional group of paleontologists, opposes to the sale of fossils unless it brings them into a public trust. Nevertheless, regular sales occur in both Tucson and Denver, where fossil finders around the world sell their precious relics to interested private buyers.

Paleontology writer and JurassicPark consultant Don Lessem, who attended the June sale, worried about the scientific impact of fossil auctions as he walked around the hall. Not only does the sale of fossils encourage landowners to charge excavation fees that scientists might not be able to pay, it also encourages fossil theft. “I’ve seen it myself at sites in Mongolia where valuable specimens have been stolen,” Lessem says. Inexperienced hunters may also accidentally destroy fossils in their quest for a quick buck, adds paleontologist Sereno. “Morocco has been stripped by local people who used to be herding goats but now make a few pennies finding a tooth or poking out a bone,” he says. Guernsey’s and other auction houses see the commercialization of fossils in a different light. Guernsey’s president, Arlan Ettinger, regards the publicity surrounding his auction as a public service, because it raises awareness of dinosaurs.

Scientific issues aside, the Park Avenue auction faced legal problems as well. The fossil trade is legal in the United States if the fossils are found on private lands, but many of the countries where fossils are typically found have passed laws prohibiting their sale. A series of embryonic dinosaurs from Argentina, one country that has such laws, was originally a centerpiece of the auction. A few days before the auction, however, Argentinian officials notified Guernsey’s that the fossil embryos actually belonged to the Argentinian governmentrumors suggested that they had been stolen—and weren’t available for sale. The house removed them from the bidding.

Even then, controversy continued to swirl around the event because of the many Mongolian and Chinese lots, which featured a mastodon tooth, prehistoric rhinoceros skulls, and full skeletons of two dinosaurs, a Psittacosaurus and a Conchoraptor. Like Argentina, Mongolia and China have laws against the export of fossils, leading some auction watchers to doubt the legality of Mongolian and Chinese fossils up for sale. But Ettinger said that the auction house had thoroughly verified that their consigners had the legal rights to the remains.

From the sellers’ perspective, the problem at Guernsey’s was not too much money but rather not enough. Bidding languished well below estimated prices, particularly on the big-ticket items in the evening session; many of the people occupying the sparsely filled house watched as spectators rather than as bidders. Among the unsold items was Lot 243, Clayton Phipps’s Stygimoloch skull. It had an estimated value of $150,000 to $1 million, but a high bid of only $35,000 led the auctioneer to pass on the lot.

More than a month later, Phipps still has not sold his prize possession. “I’ve had some serious offers,” he says. “I know that something good will come of my finding that skull.”

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