Montana's Dueling Dinosaur fossils get no action at the auction

The controversial specimens still seek a scientific home.


After 68 million years in the ground, 7 years in storage, and 81 seconds on the auction block, the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs should be back in storage by now. The unique multimillion dollar fossils were scheduled to be moved this weekend from Bonhams’ New York City auction house, where they failed to sell last week in a high-profile natural history auction.

A well-publicized outcry from scientists worried a wealthy collector might bid on the dinosaurs, placing them in private hands and therefore not available for study, has shadowed the sale since its announcement four months ago. Fossil sales are legal when the specimens are found on private property, as these dinos were, but academic paleontologists often frown on this practice, since they rarely have the funds to buy them.

Bonhams consultant Tom Lindgren (left) reflects on the Dueling Dinosaurs on display in New York City, with aspiring paleontologist Alexander Ruebenstahl (right). Behind them are fossils of a Triceratops, which also failed to sell.

The Dueling Dinosaurs had a long journey to the auction block from Jordan, Montana. Since amateur prospectors discovered them on a neighbor’s cattle ranch in 2006, they have only made the dinosaurs available for sale to a museum or museum donor. The prospectors and ranchers who own the dinosaurs were hoping for both a profit and a scientific home for the specimens. But a sale to a museum is tough when the price tag is $9.8 million. Without any significant buyers stepping forward in the last 7 years, the dinosaurs were allotted for the great unknowns of the auction block and a projected price of $7 to 9 million.

Seventeen-year-old Alexander Ruebenstahl traveled from Connecticut to New York City to catch a glimpse of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs on their short public display in the airy atrium between Trump Tower and the auction house last week. For an aspiring paleontologist, the dinosaurs were a must-see. Ruebenstahl figured it might be his only opportunity to view the fossilized beasts, a predator and possible prey, entombed in what may be a death match. But whether these two dinosaurs were actually fighting one another is still just a hypothesis that must be put through the rigors of scientific process, which is only possible if the dinosaurs are permanently held in a museum or other public repository.

“You can’t keep amateurs from collecting,” Ruebenstahl said, but “the fossils should be given to a museum for review.”

Paleontologist Peter Larson (left) shows Ruebenstahl the arms of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs meat-eater.

The set of dinosaurs are uniquely well-preserved and appear to be fully articulated, meaning all of the bones are still aligned. In order to preserve the science trapped in the sediments around them, the prospectors decided to remove the fossils in large blocks of bone and surrounding rock, hoping a scientist may properly study them someday. The dinosaurs also represent what may be two new species, a large plant-eater most similar to the iconic horned dinosaur Triceratops, and a smaller big-armed version of the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex, thought to be definitive proof of the highly debated species Nanotyrannus lancensis, which other paleontologists think was simply a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex.

During a press conference after the auction, Bonhams consultant Tom Lindgren said that some museums did show interest in the Dueling Dinosaurs, but simply did not have time to raise the funds. He expects the dinosaurs to sell in the next 30 days and will be in private negotiations with potential buyers this week.

Lindgren and paleontologist Phil Manning discuss the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs at their public display in New York City. It was the first time the dinosaurs were on public display since their discovery seven years ago.

“It is important to me not only for the owners and the ranchers I have a duty to them but I also have a responsibility to take care of these dinosaurs and make sure they end up in an institution,” Lindgren said.

“This is one of those fossils that is a game changer, for the simple reason it is complete and…it is absolutely drop dead gorgeous,” said United Kingdom-based paleontologist Phil Manning, who has been following the Dueling Dinosaurs saga for several years. He believes they are important to furthering our understanding of dinosaur evolution and he’s hoping they find a museum buyer soon.

The future once again remains unknown for the Montana Dueling Dinos, but for the first time ever, they were on public display in a city of millions where they were viewed by thousands.

“I’m impressed,” Ruebenstahl said just before he headed back to high school in Connecticut. “I’d like to be able to see them again.”

Read Montana Hodges’ feature story about the Dueling Dinosaurs. Watch videos of paleontologists and the prospectors who discovered the fossils here.

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