August 12, 1990 (a Sunday)

Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Field Museum in Chicago

On this date, fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson discovered three huge bones jutting out of a cliff near Faith, South Dakota. They turned out to be part of the largest-ever Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered, a 65 million-year-old specimen dubbed Sue, after its discoverer.

Amazingly, Sue’s skeleton was over 90 percent complete, and the bones were extremely well-preserved. Hendrickson’s employer, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, paid $5,000 to the land owner, Maurice Williams, for the right to excavate the dinosaur skeleton, which was cleaned and transported to the company headquarters in Hill City. The institute’s president, Peter Larson, announced plans to build a non-profit museum to display Sue along with other fossils of the Cretaceous period.

However, a dispute soon arose over who was the legal owner of the bones. Williams claimed that the $5,000 had not been for the sale of the fossil and that he had only allowed Larson to remove and clean the fossil for a later sale. Williams was a member of the Sioux tribe, and the tribe claimed the bones belonged to them. The property that the fossil had been found within was held in trust by the United States Department of the Interior. Thus, the land technically belonged to the government.

In 1992, the FBI and the National Guard raided the site where the Black Hills Institute had been cleaning the bones and seized the fossil. The government transferred the remains to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where it was stored until the legal dispute was settled. After a lengthy trial, the court decided that Maurice Williams retained ownership, and the remains were returned in 1995. Williams then decided to sell the remains, and contracted with Sotheby’s to auction the property. Many were then worried that the fossil would end up in a private collection where people would not be able to observe it.

3D View of Sue

The Field Museum in Chicago was also concerned about this possibility, and decided to attempt to purchase Sue. However, the organization realized that they might have difficulty securing funding and decided to request that companies and private citizens provide financial support. The California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and individual donors agreed to assist in purchasing Sue for the Field Museum. On October 4, 1997, the auction began at $500,000; less than ten minutes later, the Field Museum had purchased the remains with the highest bid of $8,362,500. The winning bid was $7.6 million before Sotheby’s commission.

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