For all her 65 million years, “Sue” lasted only eight minutes on the auction block at Sotheby’s on Saturday as a Chicago museum paid a whopping $8.4 million for the world’s most complete remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
The 50-foot fossil was bought by the Field Museum of Natural History in participation with a group that includes the California State University system. Several individuals and corporate sponsors, including McDonald’s Corp. and the Walt Disney Co., also helped pay the bill, believed to be the most ever paid for a fossil.
“This is clearly the single most exciting activity now in the world of paleontology, and it is the most completely restored fossil we have,” said Barry Munitz, outgoing chancellor of the California State University system.
Munitz, who is president-designate of the Getty Trust, said that for a commitment of $500,000 to $700,000, the Cal State system has “a rare chance to participate in a world-class activity” at the Chicago museum.
He said scholars, experts and students from California universities would be able to participate in the research, restoration, construction and preservation of the bones.
In return for their help, McDonald’s and Disney will get replica casts of the fossil. One will go to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida when it opens its Animal Kingdom next year. McDonald’s will receive two casts for use in an international traveling exhibit.
The original fossil, nicknamed Sue after discoverer Susan Hendrickson, will be publicly restored at the Field Museum throughout 1998 and 1999. The skeleton, which is about 90% complete and includes about 400 bones, is expected to be on display by 2000.
At Saturday’s crowded auction, only Sue’s 5-foot-long skull was available for viewing. With its once-menacing teeth, the huge head sat atop a pedestal draped with black cloth.
In a room tense with the anticipation of the sale of “a world treasure,” as David Redden, Sotheby’s executive vice president, put it last week, the bidding started at $500,000 and pitted nine serious competitors against each other. Among them were museums in North Carolina and Dallas, as well as an anonymous individual who planned to donate the fossil to an unnamed museum.
The room fell silent as the bidding began at 10:15 a.m. Within 30 seconds, the price had shot past $7 million.
Redden, who handled the auction duties, proclaimed “Sold!” when the price hit $7.6 million. With the buyer’s premium paid to the auction house, the Field group paid a grand total of $8,362,500.
Once a scrappy middle-aged female, the T. rex skeleton has the marks of what must have been a ferocious battle, possibly with another Tyrannosaurus. She has a tooth fragment in a rib, a gouge in her head, a crushed jaw and a broken leg.
Now, as Redden put it, “she’s more fragile than the most fragile piece of glass.”
Sue’s trip from the dusty hills of South Dakota to the auction block in Manhattan has been a saga full of political battles over who owns the bones and, now, who gets the money from the auction.
Hendrickson found the first signs of the skeleton in 1990 on a Cheyenne River Reservation ranch owned by a Sioux, Maurice Williams.
Two years after she found it, the federal government seized the skeleton from a commercial fossil dealer who had excavated it, saying he did not have the permits for such work. The government also claims rights to the dinosaur because it was found on land under federal jurisdiction and off-limits to collectors.
Sotheby’s sold the dinosaur on behalf of Williams, but the proceeds will be held in trust by the government until courts can determine where the money goes.
As the cameras, the bidders and the curious left Sotheby’s, two people who knew the bones well stayed behind to savor their transfer to a museum and not a private collection.
They were Hendrickson and Terry L. Wentz, both from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota.
“I spent 2,000 hours preparing it,” Wentz said. He described the initial reconstruction as a massive puzzle that required fitting the bones together and making certain they didn’t disintegrate as they reached the air.
“I’ve had a long relationship with her,” he said sadly of the dinosaur. “I may never be able to work with her again.”
At one point, as he and Hendrickson recalled how they recognized the bones in the ground, tooth by jaw, Redden walked over to say goodbye to Hendrickson.
“You’re a star,” the auctioneer said.
“She’s the star,” Hendrickson replied, glancing at the massive specimen. “She will outlive all of us.”