Update: Whoa! Whoa! And WHOA again! The T. rex skeleton known as STAN sold for $31.8 million–just shy of four times its high estimate, and a new world auction record for any dinosaur.
What you see: A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as STAN. Christie’s estimates it at $6 million to $8 million.
The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.
Christie’s describes this T. rex skeleton as “one of the largest, most complete, and widely studied tyrannosaurus rex skeletons on earth”. I’d like to take each claim in turn. What makes STAN one of the largest? He stands 13 feet tall and 37 feet long. [The Christie’s press release notes that the skeleton is “40 feet long with the tail outstretched”.] He is a male T. rex. Females are larger than the males.
Is that how we know STAN the T. rex is male? His skeleton is smaller? The size is a clue, but ultimately, it’s the shape and size of the hips that determine the gender of a T. rex. STAN’s are slightly more narrow.
How complete is this T. rex skeleton? STAN has 188 of his bones. Only one or two other T. rex skeletons can boast a higher number of bones than STAN. No complete T. rex will likely ever be found. The circumstances of the animal’s death, followed by the preservation of remains in the geological record, are generally unfavorable to preserving the entire beast.
Would Sue be one of those two T. rex skeletons? She’s probably the best and most complete T. rex. She’s resided at the Field Museum in Chicago for 20-odd years. Another, Victoria, is a more recent discovery.
STAN lacks 112 of his bones. From where on his skeleton are they missing? The famously short, stubby arms of the T. rex aren’t present on STAN. He’s missing one of his femurs, some ribs, vertebrae, and parts of his feet. What’s important is so much of his skull is intact. All elements of his skull are present, including 30 teeth.
When you say this T. rex skeleton is widely studied, what do you mean by that? There are countless scientific publications on STAN, and he’s been cast at least 60 times for institutes and museums around the world. I think he’s the most-seen T. rex there is.
When you say “cast”, do you mean STAN’s skeleton has been cast in plaster 60 times? Yeah, originally, but these days, resin is used for lighter weight.
How did the T. rex skeleton get the name STAN, and why is STAN spelled in all caps? The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research [in Hill City, South Dakota] always referred to the dinosaur as STAN. Stan Sacrison found the first bones of the dinosaur in 1987. Unfortunately, it was identified as a triceratops, and triceratops are the most commonly found dinosaur. In the late 1980s, there was less impetus to excavate.
I imagine that’s why they didn’t feel the urge to extract STAN’s bones from the earth until 1992. How much work went into recovering the skeleton? Each bone had to be documented, recorded, and transported to the Black Hills Institute. It was meticulously restored and prepared, 30,000 hours from ground to mount.
What can we learn about STAN’s life from studying his bones? Did he have adventures? Or should I say misadventures? Misadventures is exactly the term for it. Many of his ribs cracked and healed during his lifetime. He has holes on his jaw that are not caused by disease–they are puncture wounds that are pretty much the size of a T. rex‘s tooth. And vertebrae in his neck fused together and healed, right behind the skull. STAN broke his neck, healed, and carried on being at the top of the food chain. That tells you how tough the T. rex was as an animal.
Can we tell, by looking at STAN the T. rex‘s bones, how old he was when he died? Not with great accuracy. It’s thought that mature T. rexes lived to their late 20s or early 30s.
What is STAN the T. rex‘s skeleton like in person? I’ve been lucky to come face to face with dinosaurs in my career. There isn’t anything like standing close to a T. rex. They are big, really big, terrifyingly big. I’m six-foot-two and I don’t get halfway up to the top of his hipbone. We had him mounted so he’s stooping down in a very dynamic pose. Even then, you look up to his skull.
Wow. With STAN, the skull is displayed separately. We wanted people to be able to see the puncture wounds and his neck. Also, the weight of the skull is severe. We’ve got a [lightweight] cast resin skull on the skeleton so we can have the dinosaur swooping down toward you.
What is your favorite detail of STAN the T. rex? It’s going to sound ridiculous, but it’s the feet. When I was out cataloging him, I watched the photoshoot happen, and I took a shot of my leg and foot up against STAN. His claw was bigger than my boot. He’s just an enormous animal.
What was it like to install STAN the T. rex in the display gallery at Christie’s New York? It’s been an adventure. It’s amazing the operations team speaks to me at all. STAN takes two to three days to install, and in 2020, social distancing is a big consideration. We want as many people as possible to see STAN, and we can’t accommodate them all in the building. We removed a temporary wall so you can see him from the street.
Did you supervise the installation? Because of COVID-19, I’m trapped in London. The last time I saw STAN was at the photoshoot.
Is that nervewracking–knowing that STAN the T. rex was being assembled an ocean away from you, and not being able to watch over the process? Having seen it go up once, I have full confidence in them [the team] to do it without me there. I don’t know where STAN will end up, but the team will be able to install him in any conditions you throw at them.
So the team that assembled STAN at Christie’s New York will be made available to the winning bidder? Shipping will be at the buyer’s cost, but we would absolutely help the buyer, and advise them on how to position the skeleton in space. We’d recommend the team because they know the skeleton well.
When was the last time a substantially complete T. rex skeleton came to auction? Would that have been Sue? The last was Sue, in 1997. Sotheby’s sold it for a still-world-record price for any dinosaur: $8.36 million. The main difference, other than the gender and the size, is Sue was sold unassembled. The bones hadn’t been prepped or mounted into a full skeleton. The Field Museum spent one or two years getting it ready. [The original lot notes for Sue are not online, but the Associated Press (AP) archive channel posted video of the 1997 auction.]
Was the estimate for STAN the T. rex based on the price commanded by Sue? Yeah. There’s precious little auction history for T. rexes. STAN is being sold without reserve, but really, almost any price is possible. We’ve probably estimated STAN conservatively. Sue set a world record price and the benchmark for the market. I expect a world record with STAN and I expect another such reset. The number of T. rexes that have gone to market is pretty scant. Really, it’s a generational wait.
You said earlier that STAN’s skeleton has been cast at least 60 times and displayed all over the world. How might his fame make him more interesting to collectors? Or does the inherent rarity of a substantially complete T. rex skeleton coming to market make STAN’s fame irrelevant? I think the two are interwound. He’s been so well-studied and documented over the years, and so reproduced for museums, it’s hard to separate those two. If he was a triceratops, he wouldn’t command an estimate in the millions.
Why has Christie’s placed STAN the T. rex in its October 6 evening sale, rather than a natural history auction, or a single-lot offering? Two reasons. STAN really is the best of the best. The 20th Century Evening Sale is a marquee sale at Christie’s, and STAN is a natural fit for that reason. He was 67 million years in the making, but the T. rex is an icon of the 20th century. The first T. rex was found in Cezanne’s lifetime and was first published in 1905. Within 13 years, the T. rex had made its first appearance in Hollywood, doing battle with King Kong on Skull Island. More recently, the T. Rex was almost the lead actor in Jurassic Park.
Why will STAN the T. rex stick in your memory? Apart from the logistics and it happening in 2020… I was there as the skeleton was going up. I saw it as a pair of hips and nothing else. I saw the bones go up one by one over ten to 12 hours. Seeing it fully assembled with the lights dimmed was magical. It’s big and scary. You don’t forget something like that.
Images are courtesy of Christie’s.
James Hyslop has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a rocket-like (ahem) tall gogotte formation from Fontainebleu, France, a Canyon Diablo meteorite, and a Seymchan meteorite with pallasites.
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