What do you get for the Chinese billionaire who has everything? When blue-chip fine art and priceless imperial antiques aren’t enough, one unique item for sale in Hong Kong may be of interest: a world record-breaking dinosaur skull.
At 2.8 meters in length, a triceratops skull being sold by Hong Kong rare fossil dealer Evolved Ltd., is said to be the world’s largest for its level of completeness. With a minimum asking bid of US$1.8 million, the item’s size is just as important as the fact that the company says it was found 95 percent intact, making it even rarer as fossils go.
The skull has made a long journey to Asia: discovered in 1992 on a ranch in Montana, it wasn’t unearthed until over a decade later by a team of U.S. fossil hunters. It changed hands several times before it was made available for bidding at the end of April by the Hong Kong company.
It’s highly likely that gigantic fossil will end up in the hands of a member of China’s growing ranks of wealthy collectors. The company certainly had China in mind when choosing its name: the specimen is called “Lung Wong” (long wang, 龙王), which means “Dragon King” in Chinese. According to Evolved Ltd. Director Brian Lerner, who manages the company with business partner Anna Leong, the name was inspired by the fact that the Chinese name for “triceratops” means “three-horned dragon.” According to him, “it was also a way to pay respect to the Chinese culture which, more than any other, has understood and appreciated the power, myth, and mystique of the dragon over the ages.”
As Chinese collection of fine art and antiques has skyrocketed, Lerner says that demand for fossils has also taken off. In 2006, China accounted for just 5 percent of the global art market, but that rate shot up to 22 percent by 2014. Lerner states that “it is our understanding through colleagues that the general dinosaur fossil market in China is huge and growing rapidly.”
Chinese art collectors are a prime potential customer base for the fossil, which Lerner says is on par with a valuable piece of fine art. “We specialize in major natural history objects with an eye on the aesthetic. They are as much artistic as they are historic and scientific,” he says. “In this way, they cross over and are appreciated and often acquired by art collectors of all types. Ours are high-end connoisseur pieces and a different category than those fossils found in the general marketplace.”
But keeping a fossil in good condition is a much more daunting task than taking care of a piece of art, and a private sale could result in disaster if it goes to an inexperienced buyer who doesn’t know how to properly store it, says Michael Pittman, a paleontologist at the the University of Hong Kong’s Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory. This is especially a risk for Chinese collectors, given the fact that many are new to collecting. Pittman, an expert on carnivorous dinosaurs, particularly from China, says that he does not encourage buyers to keep the fossils in private collections for this reason. “Fossils need to be kept in a climate-controlled environment because sunlight and large changes in temperature and humidity can damage them,” he says. “Some bones like those from the skull are very fragile so fossils should always be handled carefully. Many fossils often require chemical treatments to prevent them from disintegrating. Preparing fossils for study and display requires professional preparators and conservators who have a wealth of training and knowledge about fossils and geology.”
In addition, Pittman states that keeping a prime specimen private can prevent major scientific discoveries. “If the fossils are keep in a buyer’s home or office and not stored or displayed in a museum or university this can hamper scientific progress, especially if a more complete fossil or one that is new to science is being withheld from scientists. In these scenarios it is as if these fossils didn’t exist.”
The completeness of a skull of this size is indeed unprecedented, says Lerner. “Most fossilized dinosaur skulls are only partial specimens and, in the cases of the larger ones, often just pieces of skull that are integrated into large sections of synthetic material used to replace the missing portions and hold the pieces in place. This is true of many of the skulls in the world’s public and private museums.” According to him, most skulls are around 1.8 or 1.9 meters, with the larger ones topping out at around 2.1 or 2.2. meters.
In order to determine whether this skull was indeed the world’s largest at this level of completeness, Lerner says that it required “extensive comparative research and study of empirical data gathered from relevant institutions over the past decade.” According to Pittman, it’s difficult to ascertain whether it is actually the largest. “To my knowledge, the up-to-date dataset one would need to know this does not exist in the peer-reviewed scientific journal article format that scientists use.”
The completeness of the fossil will not be hard for a buyer to determine, says Pittman. “Artificial fillers added to fossils are easy to spot as their texture is different from fossilized bone.” He also states states that composite skulls are not hard to recognize, and CT scans and chemical maps can determine a specimen’s authenticity.
The provenance of the skull will be of particular importance to Chinese collectors, since China has many illegally obtained fossils on the black market, as well as a plethora of fakes. China’s own wealth of dinosaur bones in areas such as Liaoning has caused problems with looters digging up sites identified by paleontologists. Originally smuggled abroad (selling fossils overseas is illegal in China), illegally obtained and fake fossils have increasingly been purchased by domestic Chinese buyers as wealth has risen in the country.
Whether the buyer ends up hailing from mainland China, Hong Kong, or elsewhere, Pittman states that the best thing for them to do with the skull would be to loan or donate it to a museum. “Private sponsors are an important way that museums and related institutions fund the acquisition of important specimens as well as aspects of their activities more broadly,” he says. “This is not just the case for fossils but for other museums such as those dealing with art and archaeological artifacts. As a result, museums and institutions greatly value and appreciate their philanthropic support.”