Downtime

Can Leonardo DiCaprio—or Anyone—Just Buy Dinosaur Bones?

Yes, and they’re actually not as expensive as you might think.

 A geologist cleans Sue, a 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
If you had about $8.5 million in 1997, this could’ve been you!
Scott Olson/Getty Images

According to a recent Page Six report, Leonardo DiCaprio may be looking to expand his already formidable art collection with a particularly rare acquisition: a $2.5 million piece on exhibit as part of Art Miami that “includes 150-million-year-old skeletons of an Allosaurus mom and baby from Wyoming, which took more than two years to excavate.”

For anyone who, like me, considers themselves an expert on all the wild things rich people can do with their money, the possibility that DiCaprio could theoretically just buy a dinosaur skeleton raises a whole bevy of questions.

So wait, how much do these dinosaur bones cost again?
The piece that includes them was priced at $2.5 million, according to the unnamed “art spies” who informed Page Six that DiCaprio expressed interest in the piece through an art advisor.

Art spies?
Apparently, yes. It’s definitely worth taking this story with a grain of prehistoric salt.

For sure. But generally speaking, is $2.5 million a … good price for a fossil?
It’s not bad! Compared to the $8.36 million that the Chicago Field Museum paid for the T-rex known affectionately as Sue in 1997 and to the approximately $2.1 million an anonymous buyer paid for a “fossil, excavated in Wyoming in 2013 … thought to be from the Allosaurus genus of dinosaur,” it seems like DiCaprio would be getting a deal for not just one Allosaurus skeleton but two.

Is this a new interest of Leo’s?
Surprisingly, no! In fact, you might even say it’s his thing. The first mention of DiCaprio’s fossil fixation is from 2007, when he was outbid by Nicolas Cage for the stolen 67 million-year-old head of a Tyrannosaurus bataar—an Asian cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex. The most recent—

Wait, wait the dinosaur head was stolen?
Yes, but assumedly Cage and DiCaprio had no idea about the skull’s origins when they were bidding on it. According to a 2013 report from the Telegraph, the auction house in Beverley Hills, California, that sold the fossil to Cage for $276,000 had obtained it “from Eric Prokopi, a self-described ‘commercial paleontologist’ who pleaded guilty … to illegally importing fossils from Mongolia and China.” The Telegraph’s use of quotes around commercial paleontologist suggests that they view the title with as much skepticism as I do. Cage agreed to return the stolen artifact to Mongolia in 2015.

And this wasn’t Leo’s last attempt to buy dinosaur bones? 
It wasn’t even his last attempt to specifically buy a dinosaur skull. Russell Crowe’s divorce auction this spring included, alongside the jock strap he wore during Cinderella Man, the mounted fossilized skull of Mosasaur. That skull had apparently been purchased from his good friend DiCaprio in 2008, and while we don’t know how much DiCaprio sold it for, someone bought it from Crowe for $79,300. A steal, considering someone bought a piece of Crowe’s Gladiator costume for $152,500 at the same auction.

So ultimately you’re telling me that you can just go out there and buy fossils?
Yep. I, too, was surprised that there exists a robust world of flashy auctions for dinosaur bones. Although I suppose no one at this point should be shocked at what exactly a lot of money can buy.

Is this something to be concerned about? What about, like, science?
Good question! According to a recent Wired U.K. article, non-commercial paleontologists are largely disapproving of the thriving private fossil industry that sees around five dinosaur skeletons a year pass through auction houses, usually initially obtained from private fossil hunters who fund their own digging expeditions. Sometimes these commercial dealers are even commissioned by museums; it’s when they’re not that the bones end up on the auction block. “Fossils are not like ordinary art objects,” the president of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology told Wired. “[They are] a unique and irreplaceable piece of evidence of earth’s past, and in that sense it’s important to all of us.”

Private auctions can not only keep rare dinosaur skeletons out of the hands of researchers attempting to piece together the record of life on earth, but also drive prices higher than a lot of museums can afford. While Sue, the most complete T. rex skeleton found to date, was eventually sold to the Field Museum, it required funds donated by the Walt Disney Parks and McDonald’s.