NEW YORK — Dinosaurs have not walked the earth in millions of years but they remain a source of fascination. People of all ages still dig them, literally and figuratively. Not only are dinosaur fossils of high interest, they are pop culture icons. On the eve of the 29th anniversary of the release of Jurassic Park, which debuted on June 11, 1993, and in anticipation of the June 10, 2022 release of Jurassic World Dominion, it makes sense to look at collecting dinosaur fossils. While it’s highly unlikely that serious collectors who drop hundreds of thousands for a fossil will be influenced to collect by a new movie, dinosaurs’ starring role in an endless parade of hit TV shows and movies should encourage the next generation of natural history collectors.
It’s not as if the market needs any help to stay strong; committed collectors are already accustomed to paying big bucks for top-flight fossils and skeletons. Dinosaur femurs, skulls, eggs, teeth and especially complete skeletons are all coveted.
In October 2020, Christie’s achieved $31.8 million for a nearly complete 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, named “Stan” by the person who discovered it in South Dakota (it was excavated in 1992). News broke earlier this year that Stan is destined to stand guard in the Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi, which is slated to open in 2025. Also, in a May 2022 marquee evening sale in New York, Christie’s auctioned a complete Deinonychus skeleton, dubbed Hector, for $12.4 million. Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton featured the species in his book and movie under the name “velociraptors.”
Heritage Galleries, based in Dallas, has sold several massive dinosaur-related items, from skulls and skeletons to eggs and even fossilized droppings. The auction house’s Director of Nature & Science, Craig Kissick, said the dino bug is easy to catch; he caught it as a child after his grandfather gave him a rock and geology book, inscribing it “to Craig on his 9th birthday to encourage his interest in geology.” While attending his first gem and mineral show 18 years later, Kissock met the author of that book and asked him to sign it, too. Another 18 years after that, Kissock began working in natural history at Heritage. “Dinosaurs get you when you are a kid, and some people, like me, don’t grow out of it,” he said. “There is an enduring fascination with dinosaurs that never wanes.”
As with any type of collecting genre, there is a pecking order when it comes to dinosaurs. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest dinosaurs that ever lived, Tyrannosaurus rex, ranks as the overwhelming favorite. “Right now, the T. Rex stuff is wicked hot,” Kissock said, noting his competitor’s sale of Stan the Tyrannosaurus rex reset the market. “Now if you have anything T. rex from teeth to bones — they just kind of go crazy,” he said. “I think T. rex and Triceratops have always maintained real popularity among the general public.”
Collectors prize T. rex teeth, which were vicious and deservedly earned the dinosaur a fierce reputation. Teeth with roots are especially scarce — usually, only the crowns survive. A T. Rex tooth measuring 13¾in long along its curve and retaining its root realized $35,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2011 at Heritage Galleries.
Second only to the T. rex in popularity, the triceratops is easily identifiable thanks to the horns and the bony frill on its skull. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. was the first museum to exhibit a complete Triceratops skeleton, back in 1905. Hatcher, as he was known, was originally pieced together from 10 different skeletons. The skull of a triceratops prosus recovered in Montana brought $306,864 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Dreweatts Donnington Priory.
Kissock strictly works on the natural history side of the auction world and does not get involved with the entertainment side of things, but he did say his department is hosting a movie night to watch the new Jurassic World after a new coworker said she hadn’t even seen the original. Interestingly, in November 2021 Heritage auctioned an original movie prop from Jurassic Park — a velociraptor claw made of painted cast resin. It is the very claw that actor Sam Neill, playing Dr. Alan Grant, showed to a young, insolent visitor to demonstrate how the raptors would use their claws to tear apart their victims. It sold for $17,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Though they are not genuine dinosaur fossils and do not pretend to be, movie props are always collectible. A Jurassic Park Dilophosaurus figure measuring 90 by 40 by 67in attained $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Julien’s Auctions.
Of course, the big money is in authentic fossils. Plant-eaters vs. meat eaters are a favorite pairing, such as when Heritage sold as one lot two skeletons that were found preserved together in Wyoming after likely meeting their death during a battle. The skeletons, one an allosaurus and the other a stegosaurus, realized $2.3 million in June 2011.
Dinosaurs are long dead, but their place in natural history collecting lives on. As long as small children willingly fall under the spell of the archaic creatures, the field will never want for collectors.