Bones of Contention

A Florida man’s curious trade in Mongolian dinosaurs.

  • Editors' Pick
  1. Natural history goes to auction five or six times a year in America, and one Sunday last May a big sale took place in Chelsea, at the onetime home of the Dia Center for the Arts. The bidding, organized by a company called Heritage Auctions, began with two amethyst geodes that, when paired, resembled the ears of an alert rabbit. Then came meteorites, petrified wood, and elephant tusks; centipedes, scorpions, and spiders preserved in amber; rare quartzes, crystals, and fossils. The fossils ranged from small Eocene swimmers imprinted on rock to the remains of late-Cretaceous dinosaurs. That day, the articulated toe and claw of a Moroccan dinosaur sold for sixty-three hundred dollars. A tyrannosaur tooth—ten and a half inches from root to spike—went for nearly forty thousand.

    Along one wall, behind ropes, loomed the skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar. T. bataar, as it is known, was a Tyrannosaurus rex cousin that lived some seventy million years ago, in what is now the Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia. Eight feet tall and twenty-four feet long, the specimen had been mounted in a predatory running position, with its arms out and its jaws open, as if determined to eat Lot No. 49220—a cast Komodo dragon, crouching ten yards away, on blue velvet.

    After a German sea-lily fossil sold to a live bidder, for forty thousand dollars, Greg Rohan, Heritage’s president, who had been standing near the lectern, handed the auctioneer a note. The auctioneer announced, “The sale of this next lot ...