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T-Rex (Sue) Auction at Sotheby's
New York Times
November 16, 1996 Saturday
Bones Of Disputed Dinosaur To Be Auctioned Off
By MALCOLM W. BROWNE c.1996 N.Y. Times News Service
Cut off in the prime of life 65 million years ago, chiseled from a butte in
South Dakota in 1990 and seized by the FBI two years later, Sue the Tyrannosaur
is headed for the auction block at Sotheby's. She may bring well over $1
million, which would be the highest price ever paid for a fossil.
The auction will be held next spring in New York City. David Redden, a
Southeby's vice president, said in an interview that the exact date would
depend on how long it took to remove the huge bones from the rock in which they
For the last four years, Sue has been the focus of bitter legal battles
involving commercial fossil dealers, academic paleontologists, a Sioux Indian,
the National Guard, several government agencies and the Department of Justice.
The fossil dealer who excavated the dinosaur, Peter L. Larsen, is serving a
two-year sentence at a federal prison camp. Legal documents generated by
disputes over the dinosaur and criminal charges related to its seizure fill a
storeroom, and the rights of fossil prospectors to hunt on federal land remain
the subject of bitter contention.
In the forthcoming Sotheby's catalogue, Sue will be listed as ``Property of
the United States of America in Trust for Maurice Williams of Faith, South
Dakota.'' The United States, in this case, is the Bureau of Indian Affairs,
which gave permission to Williams, a Sioux, to sell the fossil and keep the
The dinosaur, which is about 50 feet long, has been described by
paleontologists as the most complete and best articulated skeleton of a
Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. Even small bones from the ears, head and
vertebrae have been preserved in such detail that experts were able to guess
that she was a middle-aged female.
Although no fossil of such scientific and commercial importance has ever
been on the open market before, Redden said, its value is estimated at ``$1
million plus.'' Several paleontologists said the bones might bring up to $5
million, but others said the price might be much lower.
``It's going to cost Sotheby's about a half million dollars to clean those
bones, and the dinosaur bone market has been depressed by a lot of recent
tyrannosaur discoveries,'' said Dr. Donald L. Wolberg, a paleontologist at the
Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. ``They'll never get $1 million,
and it's really sad that Sue has come to this.''
Sotheby's does not intend to assemble the gigantic skeleton, but will
dislodge the bones from the stony matrix in which they are embedded, and clean
them under supervision.
The dinosaur arrived in New York from impoundment by agents of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation in Rapid City, S.D., two weeks ago in 135 boxes, and
the FBI seal on the box containing the fully cleaned skull was broken last
Wednesday in preparation for the auction.
In principle, Sue could be bought by anyone or any institution for any
purpose, including resale by a commercial dealer. When the dinosaur was seized
by the federal government in 1992, the U.S. attorney and several
paleontologists insisted that all fossils collected on federal land should
remain accessible to the American people, and that Sue should not leave the
But since then, a series of court decisions has assigned legal ownership of
the bones to Williams, who was approached by Sotheby's in a move to handle the
sale of his dinosaur. As a result of the auction, Sue could end up in Japan,
where dinosaur fossils are in great demand, or anywhere else.
But to make it easier for Sue to remain an American, Redden said, Sotheby's
has imposed an extremely unusual condition for the auction: Any U.S.
institution that submits a winning bid will be granted an extended payment
plan, by which the fossil can be bought in installments over three years. No
foreign institution or individual will have this privilege.
``As you can see,'' Redden said, ``we are throwing down a challenge to
America's institutions to keep Sue in the United States.''
Since it was discovered in 1990, the dinosaur has brought nearly as much bad
luck to owners as did the infamous Hope Diamond. (Sue, at least, has not been
linked to any violent human deaths; owners of the Hope Diamond, now owned by
the Smithsonian Institution, died as victims of wild dogs, a mob, beheadings, a
traffic accident and a drug overdose.)
Sue was discovered on land owned by Williams, whose ranch is on the Cheyenne
River Reservation in South Dakota. The discoverer, Sue Hendrickson (after whom
the fossil was named), was walking her dog past an outcrop of rock when she
noticed protruding bones.
Ms. Hendrickson, who was working at the time for the Black Hills Geological
Institute, a commercial fossil dealer in Hill City, S.D., pointed out the bones
to Larson, the president of the institute, who paid Williams $5,000 for the
right to excavate and remove the dinosaur.
After completing the excavation and separating the skull and several limb
bones from the sedimentary rock, the Black Hills team, all expert
paleontologists, realized that they were dealing with the most complete and
well articulated specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.
News of the discovery spread rapidly among paleontologists. Several officers
of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology denounced the Black Hills Institute
for prospecting and excavating on federal land, thereby denying access by
scientists to the bones they removed.
Although Williams owns the land where Sue was found, he was freed from
paying real estate taxes by placing the land in trust to the federal
government. This put the land under federal jurisdiction and therefore off
limits to fossil collectors except by special permit. Larsen did not have such
Some paleontologists contend that commercial dealers must be barred from
federal land. Others believe the patchwork of laws covering fossil collecting
are already too restrictive, tending to impede collecting by scientists as well
as by amateurs.
On May 14, 1992, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota led a surprise raid on
the Black Hills Geological Institute by a dozen FBI agents assisted by a
contingent from the National Guard. The agents loaded the packaged bones of Sue
and many other fossils, as well as the institute's financial records, aboard a
fleet of trucks. Sue's bones, packed in crates, were locked in a storeroom at
the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, where they
remained until two weeks ago.
The institute made many unsuccessful legal efforts to recover title to Sue,
or at least to win compensation for the excavation and preparation its experts
had carried out on the fossil. It pledged, for example, to keep Sue permanently
in a public museum it built in Hill City. But although he had been paid $5,000,
Williams was finally awarded title.
In a 153-count indictment, prosecutors charged the institute and its
officers with stealing fossils from federal land, money laundering and illegal
transactions in Japan and South America. A jury acquitted the defendants of
most of the charges, and failed to agree on others.
But some of the charges were upheld, and the institute and some of its
officers were fined. Larsen, a paleontologist, was convicted of failure to
declare to U.S. customs agents $31,700 in travelers checks he had received in
Japan, and of failing to report $15,000 in cash he had taken to Peru.
He was also convicted of stealing some invertebrate crinoid fossils from
Gallatin National Forest in Montana, and some other fossils (not Sue) from
Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in South Dakota.
He was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, which he began serving last
``For a long time, Sue has been an orphaned dinosaur,'' Redden said. ``But
we hope that our auction will find her a home worthy of her magnificent
23:32 EST NOVEMBER 15, 1996
Copyright (c) 1996 The New York Times Co.