Cancelled T-Rex auction sparks calls for respect of copyright, more transparency on ‘real bones’

The Tyrannosaurus rex (T-rex) Shen was initially expected to fetch between US$15 million and US$25 million at the auction on Nov 30.

Shabana Begum

Shabana Begum

The Straits Times


Shen the T-Rex skeleton on display at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall on Oct 28, 2022. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

November 24, 2022

SINGAPORE – After the unexpected removal of a Tyrannosaurus rex (T-Rex) skeleton from auction, the silver lining is that it will be loaned to a museum for the public to enjoy and not kept in a collector’s home, said fossil experts and palaeontologists.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that auction house Christie’s Hong Kong had called off the sale of Shen the T-Rex after a South Dakota fossil firm said it seems the skeleton’s missing bones had been supplemented with a cast of another skeleton, named Stan, which the firm owns all intellectual property rights to. A full T-Rex skeleton has between 300 and 380 bones.

The South Dakota firm, Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, had excavated 190 bones belonging to Stan in 1992 and they were auctioned off by Christie’s for a record price of US$31.8 million (S$43.9 million) in 2020.

The institute also sells painted casts of Stan at US$120,000 each.

According to Christie’s catalogue on Shen, the specimen contains 79 real bone pieces excavated from a ranch in Montana in the United States, and the skeleton is 54 per cent represented by bone density.

Experts and Black Hills have questioned the 54 per cent measure, saying that the majority of Shen is made of replicates.

Shen was initially expected to fetch between US$15 million and US$25 million at the auction on Nov 30.

On Sunday, Christie’s said it had decided to withdraw Shen from the auction after consultation with the consignor – the person who put it up for sale. “The consignor has now decided to loan the specimen to a museum for public display,” it added.

While fossil experts note there is no such thing as a 100 per cent complete dinosaur skeleton, they called for auction houses to perform due diligence in ensuring that no copyright is infringed and to be more transparent about the authenticity of the skeleton.

Mr Andy Chua, a member of local palaeontology group Singapore Fossil Collectors and author of children’s series Fossil Finders, said: “I am surprised about the auction’s outcome because I assumed Christie’s had already ironed out all the legal details pertaining to the usage of Stan’s bones to fill in Shen’s missing parts.

“Some from the online palaeontological community, from private collectors to museums, were unhappy with the misleading auction seemingly painting Shen as being a highly complete skeleton when it was in fact missing many bones.”

Mr Chua added that Shen is incomplete compared with Stan and the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History’s Sue the T-Rex, which has 250 real bones.

When The Straits Times contacted Black Hills, its president and dinosaur expert Peter Larson said: “The (skeleton) was so incomplete that I could not see anything in the photos presented for the auction that was not a cast of Stan.

“Every tooth, every pathology, every compression crack, every foramen, every detail of the skull, as far as I could discern, was Stan.

“(Christie’s) were also told, and told the buyers, that ‘all rights went to the buyer’.

“This was absolutely not true because Stan is a registered trademark and every square centimetre of surface is a registered copyright. This put our business in grave peril.”

Mr Larson had noticed that Shen’s skull looked similar to that of Stan’s, including holes in the lower left jaw that he said were unique to Stan.

But one of the two palaeontologists who studied Shen’s original bones was quoted in Christie’s webpage as saying that Shen’s skull is incredibly complete and well preserved – including the jaw, dentary bones and nasal bones.

Explaining the intellectual property conflict, Mr Chua said: “If I took the Hulk from Marvel Studios, changed his colour to yellow, drew new facial features and then sold it as my own character, that would be an obvious breach of intellectual property by me.”

A spokesman for Christie’s Hong Kong told ST: “We believe the original elements of Shen are authentic. Christie’s conducts research at the highest standard in the auction business on all objects we offer for sale.”

The Nov 25 to Nov 30 auction – for which Shen was the headline item – will proceed as planned, with 20th- and 21st-century art, Asian art and luxury goods to go under the hammer.

Christie’s has not revealed the T-Rex’s consignor. Mr Larson told NYT it seemed that the owner of Shen bought a cast of Stan from Black Hills to supplement the original bones.

ST has asked the consignor through Christie’s about Shen’s whereabouts and the museum it will be loaned to.

Shen was displayed at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (VCH) in Singapore from Oct 28 to Oct 30.

While Christie’s has maintained that the skeleton has 79 excavated bone pieces, Mr Larson insisted that there were only 62 excavated bone fossils in the skeleton, including fragments.

On the meaning of “54 per cent bone density”, Christie’s head of science and natural history had said weighted percentage values were assigned to each bone. A thigh bone carries more weight than a toe bone, for example.

Dr Makoto Manabe, deputy director of Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science, said: “Bone density is not a common practice. They used bone density simply to use a higher percentage to make the specimen more impressive… The number of bones are usually used. More real bones are better, aren’t they?”

Mr Larson said Shen would be at most 20.7 per cent complete, using the number of bones represented.

“We cannot assume that Christie’s knew to what extent they were misled. After all, they did the right thing by withdrawing Shen from their auction after learning the facts,” he added.

Europe-based fossil auction specialist Iacopo Briano said: “Christie’s did the right thing in order to protect potential buyers… and the more the real bones, the more the value of the specimen.

Dinosaur enthusiasts who saw Shen at VCH said they are glad the skeleton is going to a museum since it is a significant relic of natural heritage. But they were disappointed the auction house was unclear about how much of the skeleton is real.

Mr Jim Xianyu, 45, who is self-employed, said: “I’m not sure how much of the skeleton I saw was original and how much was a replica of Stan.”

Mr Elliott Ong, 25, who works in nature conservation, said: “If the skeleton had 54 per cent of actual fossils, it would have been fine. Right now, it’s just suspicious that they have withdrawn the T-Rex without much information.”

They are also hoping that Shen will end up in a museum in Asia since no museum in the region displays a T-Rex.

The National University of Singapore’s Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum houses three diplodocid sauropod dinosaur skeletons. The skeletons are more than 80 per cent complete, with two of them having original skulls. The museum said: “Any original dinosaur fossils are rare and valuable scientific resources that should be made available to scientists for research. Museums are able to provide long-term storage conditions and facilities to enable such research to be carried out.”

The palaeontologists who studied Shen’s excavated bones had said they will make available a 3D record of them for research.

Mr Chua hopes the original bones can be removed from the skeleton when needed for further study and that fossils sent for auction in future should come with a diagram or “bone map” to make clear which bones are real and which are casts.

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