Big John being sold at auction in Paris

Big John measures eight metres long by three metres high and is the largest Triceratops discovered to date. Image © Drouot

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Largest known Triceratops fossil sells for £5.6 million

The largest Triceratops ever found has sold for over £5 million in an auction that has caused controversy. 

The sale of the specimen, nicknamed 'Big John', has reignited debates over the role of private collectors in scientific research and whether all dinosaur fossils should be kept in public ownership.  

The largest-known Triceratops specimen has been sold to a private buyer. Big John's eight-metre-long skeleton was put under the hammer in Paris on October 21 and sold for the equivalent of £5.6 million.  

Described as a 'spectacular' result in a press release from the auction house which sold it, many scientists and curators have reacted with resignation at the news the specimen will enter private hands rather than a public collection. 

Dr Paul Barrett, a Researcher in palaeontology at the Museum, says, 'High demand has significantly increased prices of fossils, so much so that museums don't always have the resources to buy dinosaurs and outbid those with deep pockets.'

'Previously, it was just certain fossils like Tyrannosaurus rex that used to fetch higher prices due to their reputation. But the market has become even more skewed recently with many specimens commanding much more than they used to, and it comes down to the fact that people are willing to pay that much.' 

Sophie the Stegosaurus on display in the Museum's Earth Gallery

Sophie the Stegosaurus is owned by the Museum and is researched by scientists. Image © The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

'That belongs in a museum'

Dinosaurs bones can tell us a lot about ancient species and the more complete they are, the more scientists can learn. 

However, only around one in five dinosaur species are known from a mostly complete specimen. The rest are only known from a handful of bones and teeth, which makes it much more difficult to find out how they lived. While casts of high-quality specimens are often available, there are drawbacks. 

'As technology has got better, some scientists argue that the actual specimen is less important now,' Paul explains. 'On a dig, you could image the entire site, CT and 3D scan the specimen and take a few samples for other tests.  

'In some cases that could work, but you lose the futureproofing ability. During my career, we've gone from having CT scans as something that only happens on broken legs to something that is routinely done on fossils. There are a sophisticated range of geochemical techniques now that weren't available 15 years ago. If you don't have the original specimen, you lose the potential for future research.' 

Debate also rages over whether scientists should engage with collectors and private owners at all. While there is the potential to gain important scientific information, research increases the value of a specimen so it can later be sold for a higher price. Museums also face questions over whether to display private specimens that can bring in much needed revenue. 

'There are a lot of differing opinions within the profession,' Paul says. 'Some scientists think that a privately owned fossil should never be studied or bought, as if the specimen later disappears then any findings based on it can't be verified. On the other hand, some scientists argue that it's a duty to research a fossil and put out information on it to add to the overall body of science.  

'The pushback to that, and I'm in that camp, is that if they make a mistake when studying these specimens then it can lead to problems that could mislead scientists forever.' 

Scientific bodies like the Society for Vertebrate Palaeontologists tend to take up the middle ground, allowing for a commercial trade in specimens provided that they should be put into the care of public institutions. 

'I think there is a place for commercial dealers and private collectors,' Paul says, 'but there is a big debate over what that actually is. 

'No-one is really saying people shouldn't pick up an ammonite or belemnite from the beach as it provides a connection between people and fossils that gets them interested in palaeontology. But it's another matter for larger specimens.' 

Some scientists have suggested that private owners should be encouraged to leave their finds to museums after their death, with a long-term plan drawn up when a specimen is excavated. However, even this compromise can be controversial among scientists. 

'None of these questions have a simple answer, and many people take up very polarised positions on it,' Paul says. 'There's not really a consensus at the moment, and until there is, everything will be judged on a case-by-case basis.' 

The gate to Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park is attributed as one of the causes for the continuing popularity of dinosaurs.  Image © Shutterstock /Craig Russell

The lost world 

The sale of dinosaur bones is, however, nothing new. Some of the earliest fossil collectors and palaeontologists, such as Mary Anning, sold their finds to make a living in the 1800s. Buyers included institutions such as the British Museum, as well as amateur palaeontologists with money to spare.  

At the time, they were mostly interested in the specimens for their scientific value, with different scientists looking to name as many species as possible. Over time, dinosaurs became something of a scientific curiosity that researchers weren't that interested in.  

'For most of the middle part of the twentieth century, dinosaurs were not particularly popular,' Paul says. 'They were museum objects without a lot of cutting-edge research and were regarded as somewhat dull.  

'From the 1970s onwards, we have what is called the 'dinosaur renaissance' where the link between birds and dinosaurs was re-established. That first wave culminated in Jurassic Park, and that itself marked another uptick in interest for a mass media audience. Since then, interest has remained more or less at a high level with occasional peaks for new discoveries or films.' 

Big business in the entertainment world means that for the wealthy owning a dinosaur started to become a new status symbol. Actors Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio fought an auction battle over a Tarbosaurus bataar skull in 2007, while countless other specimens are held by businesses, institutes and private collectors across the world.  

'Prior to Jurassic Park, the only people really buying dinosaurs from collectors were museums,' explains Paul. 'Since then, the diversity of buyers has really gone up with corporations and private individuals getting involved, driving prices higher. I think not all of these people are necessarily only buying them because they're passionate about dinosaurs, but as an investment.' 

With huge sums now changing hands, fossil hunters and landowners alike have been hunting for specimens they can sell.  

In the case of Big John, the Triceratops was legally excavated from a site in South Dakota, and the sale is all above board. Nevertheless, scientists are concerned that sales like this are depriving the world of valuable information about these ancient animals.