Dinosaurs For Dollar$

Z-Rex, a 40-foot fossil of one bad-to-the-bone creature, can be yours if you can dig up $8 million or so. Your bank account will extinct, but what a conversation piece

January 22, 2000|By MARIA BLACKBURN | MARIA BLACKBURN,SUN STAFF

His name is Z-Rex. He's 65 million years old, measures 25 feet tall and 40 feet long and is the largest male Tyrannosaurus rex fossilized skeleton ever unearthed.

And, judging by past auctions, he can be yours for about $8 million.

But you'd better act fast. The fossil, which went up for auction Monday on the Web site Millionaire.com, will be available for purchase only until 8 p.m. Feb. 10.

Which means that if you want to be the first one on your block to have a real T. rex in your living room (and your dining room, and your kitchen, and your basement) you'd better bone up a little bit on your online fossil buying. Consider this a bidder's guide:

First, the basics:

The product: Z-Rex, one of only a handful of well-preserved T. rex specimens in the world. The fossil contains the most perfect skull and largest teeth (some measure more than 13 inches) ever discovered, according to the seller.

The seller: Alan Detrich, a paleontologist, fossil hunter and antiques dealer from Great Bend, Kan.

The price: The bidding starts at $5.8 million. Bidding increments are $100.

Isn't that a lot to pay for a pile of old bones?

"Last week someone bought a name on the Internet -- business.com -- for $7 million," says Detrich, Z-Rex's owner. "That's just for a name. Z-Rex is going to last forever."

"I would say it's in the ballpark, depending on the market and the condition of the fossil," says Washington geologist Peter Kranz.

Other T. rex skeletons have sold for more at auction, Kranz and Detrich point out. In 1997, a T. rex nicknamed Sue was bought for $8.36 million at a traditional Sotheby's auction and set the record for the highest price ever paid for dinosaur bones. She now resides in the Field Museum in Chicago.

Detrich spent more than $250,000 of his own money unearthing the fossil in 1992. He plans to give 10 percent of the purchase price to the owners of the South Dakota cattle ranch where the skeleton was found.

Detrich says Z-Rex has more bone mass than Sue and a more intact head. While that may be true, Peter Larson, who discovered Sue, says Z-Rex isn't as complete. A T. rex has 300 bones, all of which aren't usually recovered. Sue is 90 percent complete. Z-Rex is just 45 percent complete, he says.

"There has never been a fossil sold for as much money as Sue, not even close," says Larson, the president of The Black Hills Institute of Geology in Hill City, S.D. "Sue was more than just a dinosaur," he says. "She was a media star. She was the Mona Lisa of all the fossils."

Can I bid on Z-Rex even if I don't have the cash?

No way. Millionaire.com pre-qualifies bidders by checking their ability to pay with the bidder's bank. Prospective buyers also need to give their credit card numbers to bid on Z-Rex, although a $6 million credit limit is not necessary, says Brian Payea, a spokesman for Lycos, the auction site's online sponsor.

Why all the precautions? Well, Z-Rex was offered on eBay in July, but the auction was canceled after the highest bid of $8 million turned out to be a fake.

Should I feel guilty about buying a piece of history?

That depends. "The buying and selling of fossils is nothing new," says geologist Kranz. "In the past, however, they were primarily purchased by museums."

Selling fossils excavated on private land is not against the law in the United States. However, scientists have criticized Detrich for making his T. rex fossil available to the highest bidder before offering it to a museum.

Many scientists and educators fear that if the fossil is privately owned, it might not be accessible for study. In addition, they worry that they may be priced out of the market.

"Scientists say they don't have any money," Detrich says in response. "Why do they keep burning it up in space?"

Detrich says even if the fossil is sold to a private collector, it will end up in a museum after the collector dies. In the meantime, the buyer shouldn't feel guilty about his or her purchase, especially since Z-Rex will generate millions of dollars in revenue, he says.

"Guilty?" he asks. "Why? Something that makes you money ought to make you feel good. T. rex is the king. And capitalism in this country is king. That pretty much says it all."

Is anyone else interested in buying Z-Rex?

Z-Rex went up for sale Monday. As of press time last night, there were no bidders.

"It takes at least a day to process pre-qualifications," explains Payea.

"It takes time for word about the auction to spread," adds Susan Mann of Millionaire.com. The company is also seeking private buyers to bid on the T. rex, she says.

Greg Andorfer, executive director of the Maryland Science Center, says he'd love to add Z-Rex to the museum's collection. "On face value it sounds terrific," he says. "Having an artifact like this would be a really exciting thing."

Alas, Z-Rex is out of his price range. "But if somebody had the money and wished to buy it for the Maryland Science Center, we'd love to show it for them."

How do I bid on Z-Rex?

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