If you look to the intersection of Science and Status, you’ll find Roosevelt staring back at you. Roosevelt - honoring the namesake conservationist president who also gave the Teddy Bear its name - is the monicker given to Theropoda Expeditions specimen TE-036, a composite of three different Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons unearthed in Montana and Wyoming.
While none of that sounds particularly unusual, the context of Roosevelt’s existence is a little less typical. Theropoda Expeditions is a private company that sells the fossils it excavates. While some of them certainly could find themselves in Museum collections, most will end up in the hands of investors who are willing to pay a premium to have real dinosaur bones in their homes.
When I first heard of Roosevelt and Theropoda, the skeleton was set up inside of an old church in Dallas that was being sold. By chance I was in Dallas not long after, and made a few attempts to see the skeleton, to no avail. So I was pleasantly surprised when news surfaced recently that he was going on display at Emily Martin Design Showroom in St. Helena, CA - on the swanky side of the famed Napa Valley.
Martin Showroom is only a slightly less quirky landing spot than Roosevelt’s previous abode in Dallas. Among an eclectic collection of custom art and found objects, the towering skeleton seems right at home. And with an attached price tag of $3.9 million, Roosevelt seems to be in the right place to find a home among the ultra-rich elite Napa Valley crowd.
It’s hard for me to separate my awe of any T.rex from the bias that I have against placing Status over Science, so I bristled quite a bit at the price tag. Call it the “Sue” effect, if you will, after the Field Museum’s famed Tyrannosaurus. Sue went through a well publicized custody battle that concluded with a stunning $7.8 million auction. While they ended up in a museum - where such an important specimen rightfully belongs -the damage was done. Fossils now had a tangible price tag. And it was exorbitantly high.
Fossil prospecting - and in some less ethical corners, smuggling - is a lucrative business, as the ultra rich seek to have their own special piece of pre-history. The cost to science and the gathering of knowledge is offensively high in my mind. Take for example the recent auction of a potentially undescribed Theropod in Paris in June. Though that specimen is now lost to scientific study, the potential naming rights for the species was bandied about as a part of the status of purchasing it. God forbid we end up with a Dino McDinoface because someone wanted to be cute. Not that it would matter. Without study, any attempt to call it something would be nominem dubium at best.
But none of that should reflect on Roosevelt’s present hosts. If anything, the folks at Martin’s showroom are happy to have him about. And well they should be. I’d be pretty excited to share my office with him as well. I had a nice conversation with Whitney, the person in charge during my visit, and it was clear that Roosevelt was starting a lot of conversations about the history of dinosaurs, and about the specific specimen. That’s a good thing, I’d think.
I don’t know enough to really have an opinion as to whether or not that should reflect poorly on Theropoda either. My bias against for-profit fossil prospecting is purely my own, and doesn’t take anything into consideration with regard to the specific methods applied to Roosevelt’s collection. I explained to Whitney why the losses to science can be so profound, and why context - other fossils found in close proximity, things in the general quarry area, etc. - are probably of equal importance to the bones themselves. She seemed fairly sympathetic.
Roosevelt is a composite of at least three different T. rexes, and consists of about 37% real bone by count, 43% by volume. The rest is made up of casts from other specimens, though exactly which ones aren’t clear. I would imagine that the buyer would be a little more well informed. For their part, Theropoda Expeditions provides some pretty interesting reading material on their website, and Martin’s had some as well. The documents indicate that the purchase includes quarry maps, inventory lists of collected material, lab notes and photos.
It’s probably too much to hope that Roosevelt will eventually find its way into a museum property instead of someone’s front room. I’d wager that there are more investment bankers than museums that have nearly $4 million in spare change laying around. It’s all about the status symbol of having at least some portion of extremely rare real dinosaur bones in your possession. If it wasn’t, for that kind of money, you could go to Black Hills Institute and get 39 casts of Stan and his kin, and really amaze your guests with your T.rex herd.
Visiting Roosevelt was an experience not to be missed, and I am glad I had the opportunity. His hosts were cordial, open minded, and friendly. From a scientific perspective, Roosevelt probably has few secrets to reveal. So he’s in a good place summering in wine country waiting for the next chapter in his story to be written.