‘Stan’ the T. rex just sold for $31.8 million—and scientists are furious

The fossil was priceless to paleontologists, but experts fear it may be lost to research now that it belongs to an unknown bidder.

More than three decades ago in South Dakota, an amateur paleontologist named Stan Sacrison discovered a titan of the ancient Earth: the fossil of a mostly complete, 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex. Nicknamed “Stan” after its discoverer, the beast was excavated in 1992 and has long been housed at the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. But even if you’ve never been there, chances are good that you’ve seen this particular T. rex. Dozens of high-quality casts of its bones are on display in museums around the world, from Tokyo to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Now, an auctioneer’s hammer has thrown Stan’s future into question, with the dinosaur bones sold off to the highest—and, so far, anonymous—bidder, stoking fear among experts that this beloved T. rex may be lost to science.

On October 6, the London-based auction house Christie’s sold the T. rex for a record $31.8 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a fossil. The previous record was set in 1997 with the sale of “Sue,” a largely complete T. rex dug up by the same South Dakota institute and eventually purchased by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $8.36 million (equivalent to nearly $13.5 million today).

The day after Stan was sold, paleontologist Lindsay Zanno of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences described the sale price as “simply staggering.”

“That’s an astronomical price that borders on absurdity, based on my knowledge of the market,” added paleontologist David Evans, the vertebrate paleontology chair at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who suggested the anonymous buyer could have spent the same funds in a far more effective way to deepen huɱaпity’s understanding of the prehistoric beasts. “If this kind of money [were] invested properly, it could easily fund 15 perɱaпent dinosaur research positions, or about 80 full field expeditions per year, in perpetuity,” he wrote in an email interview.

Scientists also have raised concerns about the negative ripple effects the sale could have on the study of dinosaurs by incentivizing people to seek out and sell well-preserved fossils rather than leaving them for paleontologists to study. (Find out more about the U.S. fossil trade in National Geographic magazine.)

“This is terrible for science and is a great boost and incentive for commercial outfits to exploit the dinosaur fossils of the American West,” says tyrannosaur expert Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Paleontologists fear that if the buyer turns out to be a private collector, researchers and the public could lose access to the fossil, limiting their ability to repeat results such as measurements of its bones or conduct new analyses with more advanced tools and techniques. (Find out how scientists are reimaging dinosaurs in today’s “golden age” of paleontology.)

The ability to repeat experiments is “a tenet of science; it’s part of our ethical foundation,” Zanno says. “The paleontological world is holding its breath” to find out Stan’s future.