A fossil hunter’s attempt to sell a young Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton on eBay for $2.95 million set off a furor among scientists who warned that it needed to be studied, not sold to the highest bidder.
The skeleton’s owner, Alan Detrich, defended his decision to try to sell the 15-foot fossil to a wealthy private collector, arguing that it could still be subject to research.
“It’s very hard to reach a billionaire,” he said today, noting that he hoped a wealthy bidder from Europe or Asia would emerge. “Putting it on eBay is one way to do it.”
That outlook has angered scientists who have questioned why Detrich lent the skeleton to the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum two years ago, saying that putting it on public view was part of a strategy to sell the specimen to a rich investor.
“Mr. Detrich has tried to capitalize on the museum’s good faith by using the exhibition and scientific attention as selling points” on eBay, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology said in a letter last week.
It added, “These events undermine the scientific process for studying past life as well as the prospect for future generations to share the natural heritage of our planet.”
The skeleton, believed to be a 4-year-old T. rex, was displayed at the museum until recently and has been returned to Detrich.
The museum asked that Detrich remove all references to the museum from the original eBay listing, which advertises the fossil’s 21-inch skull and 12 teeth in the lower jaw. The fossil hunter complied.
“Most Likely the Only BABY T-Rex in the World!” the ad reads. “It’s a RARE opportunity indeed to ever see a baby REX.”
Detrich, who lives in Overbrook, Kansas, said he hoped the exposure from the eBay sale would attract a billionaire wealthy enough to pay his $2.95 million price tag. He did not inform the museum of the sale, he said, but did offer to give it a cast of the specimen.
He said he agreed to lend the fossil to the museum two years ago after he and his brother, Robert, unearthed it in 2013 on property he leased near Jordan, Montana, where he hunts for fossils.
Detrich said it was not the first time he had received pushback from the scientific community for selling fossils. In 1999, Detrick sought to sell a T. rex skeleton on eBay for $5.8 million and was unsuccessful after pranksters flooded the auction with fake bids. He said he wanted the juvenile skeleton to be studied even if it ended up with a wealthy collector.
Detrich, who said he is in his 70s, began hunting fossils three decades ago. He is also a sculptor who creates religious iconography and other works from dinosaur bones, petrified wood and steel. During the interview, he pointed out that he was voted one of People magazine’s “Top Bachelors” in 2001.
Leonard Krishtalka, the director of the museum, declined to be interviewed. But Anne Tangeman, a spokeswoman for the museum, said in an email, “Our intent was to keep the specimen in the museum sphere to be enjoyed by visitors until it was sold to a museum.”
She added, “We learned early last week that the owner had abruptly listed the specimen for sale on eBay without prior warning or checking with us.”
Detrich said he had recently tried to find a museum to buy the skeleton but had no luck. That caused a rift with the Kansas museum, he said, because the original eBay listing made it appear as if the museum was promoting the sale to a wealthy investor. It was not.
Early this month, Detrich said, he received an email from Krishtalka balking at the eBay sale. “He said, ‘What are you doing?’” Detrich recalled.
“Well, I own this thing,” Detrich said of the T. rex. “It is mine. I can do whatever I want.” So far, he has not received any bids.