Christie’s said Sunday it was withdrawing a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton it planned to auction this month in Hong Kong, where it was originally expected to fetch between $15 million and $25 million, after questions were raised about the number of replica bones used in the specimen and the species and manner as described in marketing materials.
“After consultation with the consignor of the Tyrannosaurus rex, which is scheduled for sale in Hong Kong on November 30, Christie’s has decided to withdraw the lot,” Christie’s spokesman Edward Lewine said in a statement. “The consignor has now decided to loan the specimen to a museum for public exhibition.”
When asked the reason for the withdrawal, Mr Lewine said the auction house believed the specimen “would benefit from further study”.
The news came 10 days before the planned sale.
The T. rex, which auction house Shen named, had been billed as the first skeleton of its kind to be auctioned in Asia. A Christie’s press release touted the specimen as a “museum standard” and “world-class specimen.”
However, questions about the fossil have been raised in recent weeks when an attorney for the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a South Dakota fossil company, contacted Christie’s about similarities between Shen and another T. rex skeleton named Stan of Christie’s in 2020 sold for a record $31.8 million.
Although Stan was auctioned, the Black Hills Institute retained intellectual property rights to the specimen, allowing it to continue selling painted polyurethane casts of the skeleton, currently priced at $120,000 each.
Peter Larson, the company’s president, said in an interview that when he first saw a photo of Shen, the skeleton Christie’s was planning to auction in Hong Kong, he noticed that the skull resembled Stan’s skull, including holes in the lower left jaw which Mr. Larson said were unique to Stan. Mr. Larson and his colleagues at Black Hills had studied the features of Stan’s bones over three decades after the specimen was excavated from 1992.
Mr. Larson said it appears Shen’s owner – who has not been identified by Christie’s – bought a cast of Stan from Black Hills to complement the original bones.
“They’re using Stan to sell a dinosaur that’s not Stan,” Mr. Larson said in an interview with The New York Times a few days before the sale was canceled. “This is very misleading.”
On Sunday, after the decision to withdraw was made, Mr. Larson said, “Christie’s did the right thing.”
After an attorney for Mr. Larson’s firm, Luke Santangelo, contacted Christie’s this fall with concerns that the online auction materials did not make it clear to the public that the specimen contained casts of Stan, the auction house added a note to its online auction materials .
“Replica bones added to original bones (referred to as STAN™ elements) were created and purchased by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc.,” reads a note at the bottom of a webpage dedicated to the copy is advertised .
The auction house’s catalog confirmed that none of Shen’s teeth are original. The bones excavated in Montana in 2020 were described in the catalog as “well preserved and fairly solid” and with pathologies that included bite marks and osteoarthritis.
Fossil auctions have boomed in recent years, and earlier this year, Christie’s sold the remains of a raptor for $12.4 million, more than double the auction house’s high estimate. The pullback is a significant loss for the auction house, which made Shen the star of its week-long Hong Kong auctions that begin next week.
Almost all dinosaur skeletons are incomplete, requiring casts of bones from other specimens or reconstructed additions to appear complete. How much of a skeleton is fake depends on the amount of original bone.
Christie’s said in its marketing materials that Shen “is represented 54 percent by bone density,” a measure some fossil experts have questioned.
The auction house catalog indicates that the Shen specimen contains around 79 original bones; The total bone count for a T. rex is not known for certain and may vary depending on how you count it, but some scientists have estimated it to include 300 and others 380.
In comparison, Stan, the specimen sold in 2020, has 190 original bones according to examinations of the specimen. And Sue, the famous T. rex also excavated from Black Hills and auctioned off to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, has 250, the museum says, a figurine that includes a series of rib-like bones across its abdomen that sometimes don’t are included in the total bone count.
Mr. Santangelo, the attorney, said he had urged Christie’s to change all descriptions about Shen that would “potentially mislead the public,” including its claim that the dinosaur “is represented 54 percent by bone density.”
Fossil experts had questioned the significance of this number, which Christie’s previously explained helped give more weight to a massive femur than a tiny ear bone, for example.
“Bone density has no scientific meaning whatsoever in this context,” said Margaret Lewis, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a professional group that has been vocal in opposing Stan’s 2020 auction.
Auctions like this have drawn criticism from paleontologists at museums and universities, who fear scientifically important specimens could end up in private hands and out of reach of researchers.
John R. Nudds, one of the researchers credited with studying Shen and a central figure in the auction house’s advertisements, acknowledged in an interview before the withdrawal that, after counting bones, about three-fourths of the original bones in the specimen were casts of Stan were .
dr Nudds, who said he retired two years ago as a lecturer in paleontology at the University of Manchester, said he didn’t think the existence of cast elements in Shen had been obscured.
“I don’t think that was ever hidden,” said Dr. Nudds, who added that he consulted the specimen for the private owner, not Christie’s. “I think it’s pretty obvious that if a skeleton has 54 percent bone density, 46 percent of bone density needs to be cast — there’s no other way around it.”
David A. Burnham, a vertebrate paleontology taxidermist at a University of Kansas museum who also studied Shen, explained in the report how he calculated the “bone density” figure. The 54 percent figure was calculated by “calculating the area of each individual bone using measurement software,” he said.
A third author listed in the Shen report, Bruce M. Rothschild, a former research associate at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, denied involvement in its publication, although he credited Dr. Burnham had offered his opinion on images of some different T. rexes.
dr Rothschild said in an interview that when he gave his opinion he believed the specimens belonged to the University of Kansas. “I don’t want to be associated with anything that’s going to be auctioned,” he said in an interview.
Stan’s buyer was anonymous, but earlier this year National Geographic reported that the dinosaur would be displayed at a developing natural history museum in the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Larson’s company has sold about 100 casts of Stan, including to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, for a significant portion of his earnings. He said he was concerned that any buyer of Shen would usurp the right to make and sell their own copies.
“It put our copyright and trademark at risk,” said Mr. Larson.
As the company’s attorney negotiated with Christie’s in recent weeks, some information in the auction house’s online materials has been changed. A line in the press release about Shen being “auctioned with all rights and all associated soft assets” disappeared. And the estimate of $15 million to $25 million was changed to just say “estimate on request.” Then, on Sunday, the sale was canceled.