The controversial sale of 'Big John,' the world's largest Triceratops

The fossil's $7.7-million sale has some experts worried that ancient bones' rising prices will put more scientifically valuable fossils out of reach.

Walter Stein was exploring a ranch in Perkins County, South Dakota, in 2014 when he stumbled across a root-covered set of bones that had tumbled out of an eroding hillside. Stein realized he was looking at the horns of a Triceratops, and despite the horns’ weathered condition, he could tell that they belonged to a big one.

The founder of a South Dakotan firm called PaleoAdventures, which digs up fossils for commercial sale, Stein nicknamed the fossil “Big John” after the owner of the ranch where he found it. For six years, he held on to the Triceratops in hopes that a U.S. museum would purchase it—but none came forward. Then, in 2020, he sold the fossil to an Italian firm that prepared it for auction. With much fanfare and a jaw-dropping sale price of $7.7 million (6.65 million euros) to an anonymous buyer last month, Big John became a big deal—and added fuel to an ongoing, thorny debate among scientists, auctioneers, commercial paleontologists, and private landowners.

Big John is just the latest high-profile fossil to sell for millions of dollars. A little more than a year ago, a scientifically important T. rex skeleton called Stan sold to an anonymous buyer in a court-mandated auction for $31.8 million—the most ever paid for a fossil. Some scientists are worried that the growing prices for ancient bones could drive future fossils into private collections, preventing researchers from studying the irreplaceable remains. (Venture inside the homes—and minds—of private fossil collectors in National Geographic magazine.)

With a reconstructed skull stretching more than five feet long (155 centimeters), Big John’s noggin is a few inches larger than any Triceratops skull that has been documented in the scientific literature, earning the dinosaur a Guinness World Record.

On October 21, the Paris-based auction houses Binoche et Giquello and Hôtel Drouot sold Big John on behalf of the Italian fossil firm Zoic for the highest price ever paid at a European auction for a fossil—and the highest price ever paid at auction for a fossil creature other than Tyrannosaurus rex.

While it’s uncommon to find a Triceratops skull together with its skeleton, as was the case with Big John, the dinosaur’s completeness—with 75 percent of its skull and 60 percent of the full skeleton—isn’t unheard of, and its bones vary in quality from beautifully preserved to weathered. The mounted fossil cuts a dashing figure, and the animal has an intriguing wound in its frill that healed during its life. Even so, “it’s very limited in how useful it would be for science,” says Denver Fowler, curator of the Badlands Dinosaur Museum at North Dakota’s Dickinson Museum Center.

Scientifically, the fact that Big John has the largest known skull among documented Triceratops is “basically pointless,” acknowledges Iacopo Briano, a gallery owner and natural history auction expert who worked with Binoche et Giquello to promote the sale of Big John. “What does being the biggest add to science or to our knowledge of dinosaurs?” But as a selling point for private collectors, he adds, “it’s a game changer.”

The value of a fossil

Big John is one of more than 100 known fossils of Triceratops, one of the most common dinosaurs found in western North America’s Hell Creek Formation, which snakes through parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

In the United States, only researchers with government permits can collect fossils on the millions of acres of federal lands, and these remains must be held in the public trust at institutions such as museums. However, fossils found on private land—including Big John—belong to the landowner and can be bought and sold legally.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries that allows this sort of trade. In Alberta, Canada, for instance, fossils found in that province can’t be exported according to a 1970s law that designates fossils as part of Alberta’s natural heritage—a legal response to decades of foreign museums removing exquisite dinosaur fossils from the province. Other fossil-rich countries, such as Brazil, China, and Mongolia, have similar laws, though black markets dealing in fossils from these countries persist.

Academic paleontologists have a range of views on the legal fossil trade, from begrudging acceptance to steadfast opposition. University of Calgary paleontologist Jessica Theodor, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), which represents paleontologists around the world, says she’s worried that auctions turn fossils into luxury collectibles and further legitimize the global fossil trade.

“I understand the desire to look at the fossil, to have the fossil…Every kid who’s ever wanted to be a paleontologist has wanted that,” she says. “But the reality is, they’re not infinite…We want to learn the most we can from them, and the way to do that is to have them in museums where everyone can look at them and everyone can study them.”

From the hills of South Dakota to the auction halls of Paris

Big John died some 66 million years ago and was buried in an ancient floodplain that eventually ended up beneath a private ranch some 70 miles northeast of Rapid City, South Dakota. The Triceratops sat undisturbed until Stein stumbled upon its horns sticking out of a hill.

Stein says he constantly looks for new private ranches to dig in, striking deals with landowners for permission to work on their property. In 2014, he met Big John’s namesake rancher, who said that in 50 years, no academic or commercial paleontologist had asked to dig on his land.

As Stein and his colleagues dug into the hillside, the quality of the bones got better and better. The team took samples, analyzed the rock layers where the Triceratops was entombed, and carefully mapped and photographed the site—critical details for any future academic research or commercial sale. “Excavating a dinosaur skeleton is not, and should never be about, trophy hunting,” Stein says in an email interview.

Despite carefully documenting Big John’s excavation, Stein struggled to find a buyer among U.S. museums, in part because he was selling an unprepared specimen, still largely covered in rock and protected in bulky plaster jackets. Whoever bought Big John would have to prepare the enormous Triceratops skeleton themselves. Many museums have limited budgets and storage facilities, and they also may have been reluctant to engage with a commercial paleontologist, Stein says.

In 2020, Flavio Bacchia, the director of Zoic, the firm that sold Big John, agreed to buy it from Stein for a few hundred thousand dollars.

The fossil arrived at Zoic’s headquarters in Trieste, Italy, in two tranches: one in November 2020, the other in January 2021. It took five preparators until late July to carefully remove rock from the Triceratops’s bones and mount the skeleton on a frame. Members of Bacchia’s team also sculpted, cast, and 3D-printed missing pieces to fill out the display.

The more that Big John’s skeleton came together, the more fossil auction specialist Iacopo Briano liked what he saw. Briano regularly collaborates with Bacchia on dinosaur auctions, taking the lead on promotions. Awestruck by the size of Big John’s skull, Briano realized that “we had something totally new for the auction market.”

Helpfully for its sale, Big John’s skull could claim the superlative of being the biggest—a finding that traces to Italy’s University of Bologna.

Federico Fanti, a paleontologist at the University of Bologna and National Geographic Explorer whose work has been funded by the National Geographic Society, placed one of his students at Zoic as an intern once he learned the firm was buying Big John. As the Triceratops emerged from the stone, Fanti’s student measured its skull and compared it against two key datasets of dozens of Triceratops skulls. The consistent result: Big John was several inches longer than the rest.

The student’s work will lead to an undergraduate thesis, Fanti says, but it may never be published in a formal scientific journal, since journals are increasingly wary of publishing studies based on fossils in private collections. Even so, Fanti says it was worth gathering data on Big John before its legal sale. “If a scientist has an opportunity to check, see, record the scientific parts of a specimen, it’s better than nothing,” he says. “I have measurements, photos, and 3D data of Big John, and those are available to science.”

As work on Big John continued, local interest grew. On July 30, Zoic displayed the fully mounted fossil within a temporary building in Trieste’s center square. Bacchia says that thousands of people came to see Big John over three days. Children lined up by the dozens to get their pictures taken with the Triceratops.

Briano then arranged for Big John to be shipped to a ritzy neighborhood in Paris, where it went on display in the windows of a former Gucci store in September 2021. An extensive publicity effort and a steady drumbeat of media coverage raised the Triceratops’s profile, leading to an unprecedented turnout for the auction.

Prospective bidders started reaching out weeks beforehand, unusual for fossil auctions, Briano says. Many expressed interest in the fossil’s sculptural beauty. “It’s art of God,” Bacchia says.

On October 21, bidding began. According to Briano, the pool started with several Hollywood celebrities and one of Japan’s wealthiest families, as well as other potential buyers from the U.S. and Europe.

In less than half an hour, the field winnowed to just the man holding Paddle 3: Djuan Rivers. Rivers, who now lives in Paris, says that he was the “eyes and ears on the ground” for a longtime friend of his, whom he declined to name, who wanted to make Big John part of their art collection. Rivers retired earlier this year as vice president of Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park. (The Walt Disney Company is the majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

The largest Triceratops

In the auction’s wake, some of the people who had a hand in Big John’s seven-year journey have mixed feelings about the sale.

“On one hand, I am glad the skeleton was finally fully prepared, reconstructed, and mounted. The Italians did a nice job displaying and showing it off to the public. Lots of young kids in Europe had the opportunity to see a real Triceratops up close, and that's a great thing!” Stein writes in an email. “On the other hand, I’m obviously sad to see it go and hope the new owners can put it in a museum or at least on display, so others can enjoy and learn from it too.”

Commercial paleontologists in the U.S. have long argued that their business brings important fossils to light because the profit motive encourages more people to dig. The most reputable of these firms excavate and prepare fossils to high standards, and they contact museums and researchers when they’ve found fossils of clear scientific significance. (Read more about one such fossil, the one-of-a-kind armored dinosaur known as Zuul.)

Briano argues that by adhering to strict legal standards, public auctions provide collectors with a reliable alternative to illegally poached fossils. Stein adds that without a legal market for fossils, some fossils on private land would never be excavated at all because of the lack of financial incentives—meaning such fossils would never have a chance of entering a museum. “You’re not going to stop the natural processes of weathering and erosion,” so important skeletons would rot away over time and be lost to both science and private collectors, he says.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, for its part, opposes fossil auctions and discourages the study of privately held fossils out of concern that researchers and the public won’t be guaranteed access to them. The month before the Big John auction, the organization sent a letter to Hôtel Drouot asking it to restrict bidders to public research institutions, but the auctioneers said the sale couldn’t be restricted, according to Theodor.

The impact of the fossil trade on science will depend, in large part, on where fossils happen to turn up. Most commercial paleontologists in the U.S. focus their efforts on the well-studied Hell Creek Formation, where fossils are relatively abundant. However, in some swaths of mostly private land in other regions, such as western Montana, fossils are far rarer—and more likely to be scientifically significant. “My fear is that some critical resources will be mined out,” says Fowler, the Badlands Dinosaur Museum curator.

The biggest sticking point for Fowler is the huge discrepancy between the high price paid at auction for dinosaur remains and how far that money could go if spent on the science itself. Fowler’s annual fieldwork budget is $19,000, and he does a lot with that money: Earlier this summer, he even managed to airlift an articulated tyrannosaur skeleton out of the field with a helicopter, with money left to spare.

For the kind of money one collector spent on Big John, Fowler could gather huge amounts of data for future research and understanding, he says: “I could dig you up 50 Triceratops.”

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