As It Happens

Paleontologists call out auction house that sold 'scientifically important' dinosaur skeleton

The unknown dinosaur skeleton just sold at a Paris auction prompting concerns in the scientific community that the private sale of historical artefacts like this could hinder further scientific advances and discoveries.

David Polly says the Paris auction house told him to put in a bid if he had concerns

The dinosaur skeleton of an Allosaurus Jimmadseni was purchased for close to $3 million Cdn at an auction in Paris. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

A dinosaur skeleton just sold for over $3 million at a Paris auction — but scientists aren't pleased with the sale. 

In the lead up to the auction, a letter was sent to the Aguttes auction house from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Researchers explained how the private sale of historical artifacts like this could hinder further scientific advances and discoveries.

The dinosaur, which is likely a type of Allosaurus, was found in Wyoming in 2013.

David Polly, the president of the society, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why he thinks the sale was the wrong move. Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Polly, why did you try to stop this dinosaur skeleton from being sold at auction?

It's important for the scientific process that specimens that tell us something about the earth's past go into a public repository because scientists need to reexamine them, verify what other people have concluded, and ask new questions of them. The only way to guarantee that they are available is to put them into a repository.

And how significant is this particular skeleton? What do you know about this dinosaur?

To some extent, we don't know that much because it hasn't been properly studied. But the auction house that sold it, in the information that they put out, declared that it seemed to have differences that would distinguish it from the species of Allosaurus that we already know and they intimated that it was probably a new species.

Therefore, it would be an example of a completely new life that we didn't know about it. So it would be important for it to be studied properly to determine whether that's the case or not.

So this could be a completely new dinosaur that scientists have not seen before?

It could be, yes.

Scientists say the sale of this dinosaur skeleton could hinder further scientific advances and discoveries. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

How big is it and how intact is it?

I haven't seen it directly but it is supposed to be fairly complete. Allosaurus are smallish if you are thinking about Tyrannosaurus Rex. They are maybe, I guess, about half the size. Though if you were standing next to one they would still be pretty big.

Now we know that it has actually been sold, despite your letter. How has the auction house responded?

They didn't say a whole lot. When we wrote to them they suggested maybe we could get some wealthy donors and make a bid on it ourselves.

I suppose it wasn't completely unexpected. It would be a quite magnanimous owner and auction house that would be willing to forgo the amount of money that they figured they would make, and indeed, have made. But it is disappointing.

David Polly at the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah. (Submitted by David Polly)

If this had been found and contributed to science how exciting would that be for people like yourself and scientists who are studying these?

I think in large part it would depend on how new it is. We do know Allosaurus. This is a nice complete skeleton, which would undoubtedly add to our knowledge of Allosaurus. But if it turns out to be new species, then it would be more exciting in the sense that it would really break new ground and, perhaps, indicate that there were more than one of these big theropods living in the same place at the same time, which has all sorts of ecological implications.

Detail of a Jurassic age (161-145 million years) dinosaur skeleton of an Allosaurus Jimmadseni, found in Wyoming, U.S. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

And this buyer says that apparently they will lend the skeleton to a museum. Does that help at all?

That's what I've heard — and, yes and no. It certainly allows people to enjoy it. But for going into the scientific record, most paleontologists would steer clear until it was permanently in a repository.

So it would actually be in many ways more useful, for a scientific component, for the person to donate it to a museum and then get it from the museum on loan for their lifetime or something like that. So that at the end of their life it went back to the museum.

Written by Emilie Quesnel and John McGill. Interview produced by Emilie Quesnel. Q & A edited for length and clarity.

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