Old bones fetch big money

By Craig Copetas

The growing popularity of dinosaurs has boosted sales of bones. Photo / Greg Bowker
The growing popularity of dinosaurs has boosted sales of bones. Photo / Greg Bowker

Trading in dinosaur bones is on the rise - but buyers can still get the odd bargain.

A Cretaceous toe, for example, will set you back just US$295 ($380).

"Market value comes down to what a person is willing to shell out for a dinosaur," says Hal Prandi at Two Guys Fossils.

The 60-year-old dino dealer has been in the business since 1985, selling Jurassic ribs for US$350 each and a 5m-long Camarasurus tail for US$20,000.

From Two Guys headquarters near Johnny Macaroni's restaurant in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, to the stylish auction houses along Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris, affluent trendsetters are on the prowl for trophy dinosaurs, says French art promoter Sylvie Lajotte-Robaglia.

Hollywood stars Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2007 entered into a spirited bidding war at I.M. Chait auctioneers in Beverly Hills over who would go home with a 67-million-year-old T-Rex skull. Cage's US$276,000 bid won the day.

"That's the fancy market," Prandi says.

"With me it's first come, first served, and you can find good business in selling dinosaurs to emerging countries. The first thing those guys want to do is build a museum and put a dinosaur in it."

Lajotte-Robaglia, director of Art & Communication, caters to a more discreet and established clientele. She's helped Christie's International sell a mammoth for €312,000 ($546,115) and played a role in auctioning off a complete Triceratops skeleton for €592,000.

Over at Sotheby's Paris, France's first lady of dinosaurs last year facilitated the sale of a €280,000 Triceratops skull to an anonymous bidder and is involved in moving a Prosaurolophus Maximus with mummified skin for €1.5 million, a giant 483-million-year-old French lobster from the Silurian Period at €12,000 and a 4m-long Xiphactinus Audax fish for €150,000.

"We once sold a mammoth to a French winemaker for €150,000," Lajotte-Robaglia says. "He put it in his chateau. Whether a Brontosaurus looks good in your salon is a matter of taste, but these are young wealthy customers who grew up mesmerised by Spielberg's Jurassic Park and find the aesthetics of a dinosaur more interesting than a Picasso."

Prandi says that confirming a dinosaur's provenance is just as tricky as verifying the authenticity of a work by the Spanish master.

"A lot of people call me up from all over the country and say, 'I found a dinosaur in my backyard,' but it turns out to be a rock that looks like a dinosaur," Prandi says.

Even so, the US is the world leader in mining luxury dinosaurs. "It's one of the few things we're still No 1 in.

"Countries rich in dinosaurs, like China and Morocco, have slapped moratoriums on fossil sales, but not America. If the dinosaur is found on private property, Washington gives you an export licence."

Still, Lajotte-Robaglia says that Sotheby's was the first to offer dinosaur-market elegance.

"Our first dinosaur auction was in 1997," she says, leafing through Sotheby's 112-page October natural-history sale catalogue.

Lot 38 is an 85-million-year-old flying Pteranodon Longiceps from Kansas.

Translated roughly from Latin, the "creature with no teeth able to steal and who bears an outstretched head" had a 5m wingspan and now has a €250,000 price tag.

Back in East Bridgewater, Prandi says he has no plans to turn Two Guys into an upmarket auction house and get in on the luxury-dinosaur action.

"Most of my clients are average run-of- the-mill guys," he says. "For now, my most unique sale was a fossilised organic dinosaur brain. Sold it for US$2000."

Prandi says that will change if he can beat the competition in finding a T-Rex penis which, according to paleontologists at the Discovery Channel, should be 4m long.

Dino deals
* Cretaceous toe: $380
* Jurassic rib: $450
* T-Rex tooth: $1285 per 2cm
* Fossilised dino brain: $2500
* T-Rex skull: $355,000
* Pteranodon Longiceps skeleton: $440,000
* Triceratops skeleton: $1 million

- Bloomberg

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