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Suing Over Sue PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Monday, 07 February 2005 18:00
In 1990, Peter Larson paid Maurice Williams $5,000 for some fossilized dinosaur bones that his team had found on Williams’ property in South Dakota. It wasn’t a speculative buy. “We knew it was really good,” Larson said in a phone interview last week. It was either a T. rex or a brand-new genus of dinosaur. So he was willing to pay good money for it. The sum, he noted, was the most anybody had ever paid for an unexcavated dinosaur skeleton. “We were one of the few organizations that paid anything for fossils found on their land,” he said.

What Larson and his group from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research didn’t know was that the find would be better than good; it would smash records.

“You never know until you get it out of the ground” and have a chance to meticulously uncover and document the find, he said. This specimen, though, had lots of material and good articulation. Several months after the dinosaur was discovered, Larson recognized that this find was extraordinary. “I knew it was an important piece,” he said.

Larson named the dinosaur Sue, and she remains the largest T. rex ever found.

In 1996, Sue sold for $8.4 million at auction, but Larson never got a penny of that money; Williams netted $7.6 million, and Sotheby’s auction house got the rest. Sue, which Larson hoped would be the prize for his Black Hills Institute museum in South Dakota, ended up the star attraction at the Field Museum in Chicago.

The story of Larson and Sue is a long, winding one, involving the federal government, the courts, a criminal case, and issues both legal and scientific. “The world changed after Sue went to auction,” Larson said. “No fossil had ever been sold for anywhere close to a million dollars.”

Larson arguably spent two years in prison because of those dinosaur remains, but he’s benefited from his notoriety. His Black Hills Institute team has excavated the remains of seven other T. rexes, including the most complete ever uncovered, known as Stan. He co-wrote the book Rex Appeal – documenting his and Sue’s ordeal – and this week will appear at Augustana College for the lecture “Science & Politics: The Strange Case of a Dinosaur Named Sue.” The talk is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, February 10, in Room 102 of the Science Building, 726 35th Street, Rock Island.

“I’m a Capitalist”

Larson’s world started to change before Sue was even unearthed. The president of the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research considers himself both a scientist and an entrepreneur, a mix that makes some of his fellow paleontologists uneasy, particularly those in academia.

“There aren’t many jobs for paleontologists,” Larson said. “So I created a job” by starting his own company with some partners in 1974.

Larson does not apologize for how he conducts his business. “I’m a capitalist,” he said. “I also believe people need to be paid for their work.” Critics who claim that Larson owes it to science to donate his significant finds to museums are essentially asking him to work for free, he said.

“Peter Larson is a guy who’s in it to make a living, but he’s also in it for the science,” said William Hammer, a paleontologist and professor at Augustana College who is one of Larson’s defenders. “He likes the science part of it, which is unusual for a dealer.”

Hammer is no stranger to discovery himself. He has excavated the skeletons of a previously unknown sauropod (2004) and Cryolophosaurus elliotti (1991) in Antarctica. The latest find dates from the early Jurassic period – between 190 and 200 million years ago.

But because of the controversy swirling around Sue, Larson is as close as paleontology has to a celebrity. Many of the issues related to the discovery and disposition of Sue are political rather than scientific, Hammer said. But it did bring to the surface some essential questions related to paleontology: Who owns dinosaurs? Who should own dinosaurs? And should dinosaurs be commodities?

Yet although the issues that Sue raised are important, they don’t directly flow from Larson or his methods; concerns about profiteering in paleontology are less about Larson than fossil hunters who are less scrupulous – and less science-oriented – than he is.

Larson swears that he never intended to make a mint off Sue. “She was being collected for the museum,” he said.

“I believe him when he said he wasn’t going to sell Sue when he was done with it,” Hammer said. The Augustana professor noted that Larson’s museum offers free admission, although “he does have a huge gift shop connected to it.”

In some ways, Larson argued, his crew contributes more to science than university paleontologists. An academic researcher, he said, might be trying to answer a specific question and in the process ignores or discards unrelated fossils. “When we’re in the field, we collect everything that comes out of the ground,” he said.

Still, back in 1990, academic paleontologists were concerned about someone working outside of the ivory towers. Some colleagues accused Larson of collecting fossils on federal land – which is illegal – and that prompted a federal investigation into the Black Hills Institute. A month later, Sue was found. (Larson notes that he has never discovered a T. rex. The specimens he’s excavated have all been found by other people. His teams have come in to do the work.)

From that point forward, the two situations were inextricably linked. Williams, who is part Native American, had the land where Sue was found in a federal trust. That, in the eyes of some in the federal government, made Sue federal property. In May 1992, the FBI raided the Black Hills Institute and took the dinosaur remains.

The Black Hills Institute sued, and a court ruled that the dinosaur remains represented real estate. Because Williams had not gotten permission from the Department of the Interior to sell the property to Larson, the sale was voided. Williams now owned Sue, and he requested permission to sell it at auction. By this point, Sue’s scientific value (as well as audience appeal) was well-known. It didn’t hurt that Jurassic Park had made dinosaurs hot commodities.

Larson holds no grudge against Williams and his decision to sell the remains at auction. “At this point, it’s human nature,” he said. “It’s understandable.” (For more information on Sue, visit http://www.fieldmuseum.org/sue/.)

But Larson and his attorney were vocal in their criticism of the federal government, and that was probably not a wise decision on their part. “Both I and my lawyer were pretty sharp-tongued,” Larson said. “We made some people mad, upset.”

In late 1993, Larson and several of his Black Hills colleagues were named in a 153-charge, 39-count federal indictment. The charges ranged from misdemeanors to violations of the Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act – a statute typically used in cases against organized crime. If convicted on all counts, Larson faced 350 years in prison, he said.

“If the government wants to find something wrong with your business … ,” Hammer said.

In the end, Larson was the only one convicted, and he was sentenced to two years in prison and two years’ probation. The convictions were unrelated to the excavation of Sue and stemmed from customs violations. Larson served his prison time starting in 1996.

“There’s a Lot Lost to Science”

Larson’s story is an interesting side note to the Sue saga, but it can also detract from the real issues raised the dinosaur’s sale.

Sue, in short, was an anomaly, and probably created a glut of treasure hunters who weren’t at all interested in science.

“It’s not worth as much money as it was sold for,” Hammer said, noting that McDonald’s and Walt Disney World Resort contributed money to the purchase of the bones and are its rightful owners. “The people who bid on it did as much of a disservice to science as the people selling it.”

The market for dinosaur remains has never again reached the heights it did with Sue. An auction last year for what are believed to be the first discovered T. rex bones fetched less than $100,000, not even a quarter of what its sellers were expecting.

But the publicity over Sue and its sale, as well as a general public fascination with dinosaurs, created a lot of amateur paleontologists. The ranch in the Great Plains where Hammer takes students was one summer overrun with 400 fossil collectors, he said. The owner has since leased rights to one commercial paleontologist.

“We call them the dinosaur dreamers,” Larson said of amateurs. What these hunters don’t recognize, he said, is that to fetch top dollar, a dinosaur find must be meticulously documented and carefully handled. “It’s a lot of work,” he said. As an entrepreneur, he said, his organization needs to collect material as efficiently as possible.

In addition, the Black Hills Institute keeps detailed records. “You need to collect the data along with the specimens,” he said. “You can’t re-dig the site.”

Duck-billed dinosaur remains might sell for $300,000, Larson said, but they also represent roughly 15,000 hours of work to excavate, document, and prepare properly. “It basically paid for the labor,” Larson said. A T. rex requires about 25,000 hours.

“We try to keep the very best of each species for the museum,” he said. Overall, he said, less than 10 percent of what’s collected by Black Hills is sold.

But major pieces, such as T. rexes, are such a large investment that they sometimes must be sold. “Right now I can’t afford to keep them,” he said. Black Hills sold one T. rex to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, although he wouldn’t say for how much.

As for Hammer’s work, no private paleontologist could replicate it. “You couldn’t launch a private expedition for less than $5 million,” Hammer said of Antarctica. “I would say closer to $10 million.”

But the dinosaur dreamers don’t know how much expense and work goes into proper dinosaur hunting. And because they don’t have the paleontology experience or training, they don’t know how to handle or document these fragile specimens.

Another issue is fossils being sold on the market and not ever getting into the hands of scientists. Because of commercial dealers without an interest in the paleontological record, Hammer said, “there’s a lot lost to science.”

In China, he noted, laws against collecting fossils aren’t enforced. “Things are collected and we don’t even know about it,” he said. “It’s become more of an issue since the Sue thing.”

Augustana now purchases more fossils than it used to, Hammer said, but that’s more a function of an increase in the school’s endowment than market forces.

Larson doesn’t seem as troubled by the trend as Hammer does. Fossils, he noted, are uncovered by the elements and would be destroyed by them if they’re not collected. “They would have been completely lost to weathering,” he said.

And if significant specimens never make their way into the scientific record, at least someone got some enjoyment out of it, he said.

And Larson dismisses concern that the fossil record won’t be available to scientists because specimens are sold to private individuals. Because of the size of the remains, he said, the market for dinosaur fossils is pretty much limited to museums. “Where are you going to put a dinosaur?” he asked.

For more information about Larson and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, visit (http://www.bhigr.com).
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