Money for old bones: Dinosaur fossils become big business

Sotheby's is to auction some of the world's rarest prehistoric relics

She possesses a set of fearsome jaws, is in spectacular condition for her age and would make a striking addition to any drawing room – provided you have one big enough to contain her 33ft-long set of fossilised bones.

Anyone with a seriously large wallet could soon be able to buy this rare, partially complete fossilised skeleton of an Allosaurus, a large carnivorous dinosaur that lived about 150 million years ago and is sometimes referred to as the T. rex of the Jurassic Period – T. rex itself lived much later during a period known as the Cretaceous Period.

The female Allosaurus, discovered in a fossil graveyard in the US state of Wyoming, is one of the prime exhibits going on sale later this year at the French headquarters of Sotheby's in Paris. She is expected to attract huge interest from the growing number of wealthy fossil collectors keen to snap up one of the rarest of dinosaur finds.

Another item on sale is a flying carnivorous reptile with a 35-inch wingspan called Dorygnathus banthesis, displayed in the original black matrix rock it was found in when it was unearthed in 1932 from a site in Holzmaden, Germany. Sotheby's estimates that the oval-skulled pterosaur will fetch €160,000-€250,000 (£145,000-£247,000).

If neither of these beasts takes your fancy, then how about a complete skeleton of a fish-eating Plesiosaurus, a type of primitive marine lizard that lived about 190 million years ago?

It was dug out from a limestone outcrop in Blockley, Gloucestershire, in the early 1990s. Sotheby's says that the 6ft 7in by 9ft 10in skeleton is the best-preserved specimen of a Plesiosaurus to date, meaning it could easily go for more than £300,000. For those who do not like the idea of taking a fearsome carnivore home with them, there is the alternative of bagging a pair of petrified crabs buried suddenly near Vicenza in Italy 45 million years ago.

Alternatively, there is a fossilised palm leaf and accompanying fishes dating from the Eocene Period some 50 million years ago, about 15 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct but before mammals had fully risen to take their place as the dominant, large terrestrial lifeforms.

"Whether you look at them as artistic masterpieces or wonders of nature, dinosaur skeletons, fossils and minerals retrace the saga of evolution, especially that of mighty terrestrial and marine mammals that are now extinct," said Professor Eric Mickeler, a palaeontologist and the expert consultant on the Sotheby's sale.

Whatever the motives of those wanting to own such magnificent specimens, it is clear that collecting and dealing in fossil relics of a prehistoric age is big business, according to Lorraine Cornish, a senior conservator at the Natural History Museum in London, who is involved in the museum's purchases of fossils.

"We try not to buy on the commercial market. For a start we have limited funds, but we also don't particularly want to encourage the sale of fossils that may be dug up without the details of the find being recorded, which would mean the loss of important scientific information," Mrs Cornish said.

"But we have to accept that dealing in fossils is a reality. Some very wealthy people are passionate about the fossils they collect and they want the best, just like some people want the best works of art," she added.

One of the prime fossil exhibits in the Natural History Museum in London is a heavy-clawed dinosaur called Baryonyx walkeri which was unearthed in a clay pit near Dorking in Surrey.

One of its distinctive claws was found sticking out of the ground by William Walker, a local amateur collector, in 1983.

Mr Walker took the claw to the museum, whose experts organised a proper excavation. In return, Mr Walker received replica claws and had the species named after him.

"We try to develop really close relationships with amateur fossil collectors. In that way, if they find something they are likely to bring it and show it to us first," Mrs Cornish said.

In Britain it is perfectly legal to collect and deal in fossils of dinosaurs or other prehistoric animals provided that certain guidelines are met, such as securing the approval of the landowner and getting particular permission from official authorities if the collecting area falls within a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, which are often established to protect the best fossil deposits.

Although there is no legislation specifically designed with fossils in mind, guidelines dictate that detailed records of the find should be kept and the excavation should be done with sufficient care.

One important site for amphibian fossils near North Berwick, for instance, was entirely removed illegally in a matter of hours by a collector using a mechanical digger.

Some of the most important finds have been made by amateur and professional fossil collectors. One such collector, Stan Wood, unearthed the earliest known fossil reptile near Bathgate in West Lothian.

The eight-inch-long fossil, known as "Lizzie", was later sold to the National Museums of Scotland for £180,000 – considerably less than Mr Wood could have received if he had sold it to foreign collectors, according to Matt Dale, an Edinburgh fossil dealer who now runs Mr Wood's fossil business.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine