The dinosaur bone market is booming; it also has growing pains

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HULETT, Wyoming – Crouching over a snow-dusted quarry that moonlights as a fossil hunting ground, Mr Peter Larson pointed to a weathered four-inch slab peeking out from a blanket of white. A commonplace rock to the untrained eye, but an obvious dinosaur bone to Larson.

“That’s 145 million years old, plus or minus,” said Mr Larson, a 70-year-old fossil expert and dealer, as he walked through an excavation site that had already yielded seven dinosaurs.

Hulett is fertile ground for the current dinosaur-bone hunting craze. Mr Larson has been digging here for more than 20 years, beginning not long after Sue, a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that he helped excavate, sold at auction for US$8.4 million (S$11.6 million) in 1997, ushering in a boom in the market for old bones. Local landowners started to wonder if they could farm a new crop: dinosaur skeletons.

Among them were Ms Elaine and Mr Leslie Waugh, who raised sheep on their Wyoming property, not far from the Devils Tower National Monument, but who began to wonder what they should do about all the dinosaur fossils they kept finding in the dirt.

“We just figured that we should do something with them bones,” said Mr Waugh, 93. They called Mr Larson, whose company’s excavations here, including a Camarasaurus, a Barosaurus and a Brachiosaurus, required years of painstaking digging.

Palaeontologists vs moneyed men

Fossil hunting has become a multimillion-dollar business, much to the chagrin of academic palaeontologists who worry that specimens of scientific interest are being sold off to the highest bidders.

Sue’s record price was beaten by Stan, another T. rex that Mr Larson’s company excavated, which Christie’s sold at auction in 2020 for US$31.8 million. In 2022, a Deinonychus (the inspiration for the Velociraptors depicted in the film “Jurassic Park”) sold for US$12.4 million. In December, a T. rex skull is estimated to fetch between US$15 million and US$20 million. Buyers include financiers, Hollywood stars, tech industry leaders and a crop of new or developing natural history museum facilities in China a...

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