Portuguese Builder hopes to Cash In on his Lucky Find

With increasing prices being paid for dinosaur fossils and other artifacts from the past, sometimes scientific research can be thwarted by an entrepreneur out to make a quick profit.

One such scenario is currently being played out in Portugal, where the owner of a construction company has put his dinosaur discovery up for sale to the highest bidder.

Gonsalo Ribeiro, the finder of the dinosaur fossils, believed to be an articulated Sauropod tail that dates from the Late Jurassic, has put this rare find up for sale on the internet.  Commenting on his discovery, Mr Ribeiro stated:

“I own an excavation business, and one day when we were out digging, we came across some stones, but when I looked closer, I noticed that they were not stones”.

Ever since the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton found to date was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1997, dinosaur fossils up for sale have hit the headlines and prices have rocketed.  That particular fossil was the famous “Sue” T. rex discovered in August 1990 by Susan Hendrickson, it was auctioned on October 27th 1997 and fetched $8.36 million.

A number of other widely publicised auctions of ancient prehistoric animal remains have taken place, there are major sales at least once a year.  Some of these sale items are purchased by the public purse or by philanthropists who later donate these items to museums.  This enables scientists to carry out research on them, but many are bought  by private collectors and they are then no longer available for study.

To read about a marine reptile fossil being auctioned: Fancy a Mosasaur for Christmas? Prehistoric animals under the hammer

Recently, an almost complete Triceratops skeleton was sold (T. horridus), although the reserve price of 500,000 Euros at the original auction was not met, it did eventually sell for nearly 600,000 Euros a few days later.

Triceratops article: Triceratops for Sale

The advertisement for this particular fossil sale reads: “For sale, dinosaur spine 90 per cent intact”.  It sounds to us like these are elements of the caudal vertebrae, perhaps those located immediately posterior to the sacral vertebrae, (the tail bones immediately behind the hips).

The tail section is estimated to be 3.6 metres long and has been dated between 152 and 146 million years (Kimmeridgian to Tithonian faunal stages).

When asked to comment on the auction, leading Portuguese palaeontologist Dr Octávio Mateus of the Museum of the Lourinhã stated that this particular find was of “huge scientific value”.

Mr Ribeiro has refused to hand over his treasure to a museum, claiming “the figures they offer are far off the mark.” A bold statement as setting a monetary value on such an item is a very difficult business.  It is believed that he has already turned down an offer of 100,000 euros (£84,000).

For Mr Ribeiro, this may be an opportunity to make some money, perhaps a lot of money, but this is really a sordid business as his actions are denying scientists the opportunity to study precious late Jurassic Sauropod material and eventually such a set of fossils could be put on public display at a museum for everyone in the community to see.

Dr Mateus, a specialist in the Jurassic dinosaurs of Portugal having worked on a number of specimens including the Brachiosaurid Lusotitan that he helped name and describe in 2003,  has published a note on the website denouncing what he called the “sale of our heritage as if it were a car or a pair of shoes”.

Palaeontologists are calling for legislation to help protect fossils so that they can be declared “public heritage” and protected from being sold to the highest, wealthiest bidder to the detriment of the scientific community and the public.

Such instances are likely to become more and more common as internet sites and specialist auction companies provide a ready market for such valuable items.  We wish Dr Mateus and his colleagues well and hope their case is given a fair hearing by the Portuguese legislature.

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