Art Collectors Are Now Investing In Dinosaur Fossils — Here's Why
On a quiet, leafy road in Singapore’s upscale Upper Thomson district sits what appears to be a conventional family home. But anyone who steps through the front door is in for a shock—it’s like stumbling into Jurassic Park.
“I have more than 1,000 fossils in my collection,” says Calvin Chu, a partner at consulting firm Eden Strategy Institute. An enormous skull of a prognathodon giganteus—a 10-metre-long, prehistoric marine reptile that looks like a cross between a whale and a crocodile—sits next to his dining table. Rows of custom-built cabinets house artefacts that include the tooth of a tyrannosaurus rex and a 4.4 billion-year-old rock, one of the world’s oldest.
“Some collectors are proud of ‘taming’ a prehistoric beast that sits on their mantle,” says Chu. “But for myself, standing at the foot of a giant dinosaur or a ferocious ancient predator humbles me, and gives me perspective on how trivial the day-to-day issues we may be dealing with might be. I guess when astronomers contend with the vastness of space, it is a very similar feeling of smallness.”
Crazy Rich Collectors
Chu is not alone in his obsession with dinosaurs. Interest in collecting fossils is booming, with prices rising astronomically as buyers vie for the top specimens at auctions and in galleries. Fossil fanatics Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio have both made headlines with their purchases, but many of the new crop of big-spending collectors are based in Asia: secretive connoisseurs from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines have collectively spent tens of millions of US dollars on fossils over the past decade.
Their purchases would not be out of place in Crazy Rich Asians: one collector in Singapore has a woolly mammoth tusk taking pride of place in his living room; a devotee in Hong Kong is rumoured to own a pterodactyl; and an enthusiast in Taiwan has an enormous skeleton of a duck-billed prosaurolophus, which at 11 metres long is the length of roughly two cars, to give just a few examples.
An even larger fossil raised eyebrows—and a ruckus—in October, when a bidder at Christie’s paid US$32 million, including fees, for a 67-million-year-old T rex, shattering previous records. Dubbed Stan, the dinosaur stands nearly four metres tall and measures more than 12 metres from nose to tail. It is one of the most complete T rex skeletons ever found, and so has been reproduced dozens of times: casts of Stan sit in institutions such as the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and the National Museum of Natural Science in Tokyo, among many others, making it the most widely exhibited dinosaur of all time. At the time of writing, Stan’s new owner remains anonymous, so where in the world the skeleton will end up is unknown.
Unlike Chu, who began collecting as a child, many enthusiasts fall into the world of fossils through their interest in art or other collectibles. “Collectors who are bored of buying yet another bottle of wine, watch or supercar are finding fossils an interesting alternative,” says Chu.
Christie’s auctioned Stan in a sale of 20th-century paintings and sculptures rather than in a dedicated natural history auction. It was the only fossil in a line-up of 46 lots, among them a watercolour by Cézanne, a moody, maroon Rothko and multiple Picassos.
“Certain works and objects have the ability to transcend categories,” says James Hyslop, head of science and natural history at Christie’s.
Costas Paraskevaides, director of London art, antiques and fossil gallery ArtAncient, agrees. “There is an excitement in collecting these provocative works and placing them alongside conventional works of art,” says Paraskevaides, who has begun to exhibit and sell fossils at art fairs. At Frieze Masters in London in 2019, ArtAncient sold a T rex tooth to a collector of contemporary art who was new to natural history.
Collectors’ desire to own a velociraptor to hang next to their Velazquez or a diplodocus to match their Damien Hirst is not new. “There is a long and rich association between [natural history] and the wider art market. It is really born in the kunstkammers and cabinets of curiosity first seen in Europe, and recently these have had a revival,” says Christie’s expert Hyslop. Those cabinets, which were popular among European aristocracy and royalty in the 16th and 17th centuries, were eclectic collections that mixed art, antiques, fossils and furniture.
While some collectors today are developing extensive, thoughtful kunstkammers, others are on the hunt for one trophy specimen. “I have observed an increasing trend of businessmen or corporations who invest in one iconic, signature specimen, more for the spectacle they bring to their guests than as a collection,” says Chu.
The recent boom in buying fossils can be traced through auction records. When Christie’s first started growing its natural history department in 2012 and 2013, sale totals for the year would hover around £100,000. In 2019, Christie’s sales of natural history lots totalled more than £2.5 million. Sotheby’s sold a T rex for US$8.3 million in 1997; that record more than tripled with the sale of Stan this year. In 2010, Sotheby’s sold a complete skeleton of an allosaurus—a smaller cousin of the T rex—for just under €1.3 million; this October, Parisian auction house Binoche et Giquello sold a similar fossil for more than €3 million.
Binoche et Giquello has sold multiple dinosaur skeletons to collectors in Asia in recent years. “The triceratops skull we sold in 2017 was purchased by a wealthy Chinese businessman with a massive hotel chain,” says Iacopo Briano, co-founder of art and fossils gallery Art Sablon in Brussels, who advises Binoche et Giquello on its natural history sales. “It’s now the centrepiece of the hall of a spa hotel in mainland China.”
In 2018, a collector from the Philippines dropped roughly €3 million on a pair of fossils: a long-necked, herbivorous diplodocus and a meat-eating allosaurus, posed as if they were fighting.
Briano has long advised collectors in Asia. “One of the starting points of my career was consulting from 2008 to 2014 for a Surabaya-based businessman, Indonesian of Chinese origin, for whom I curated the building of a massive fossil collection,” he says, adding that he knows of a Thai family with an impressive collection of dinosaurs and has sold “great specimens” to collectors in China and Taiwan. “China is due to become the biggest source of wealthy collectors,” he says.
Hyslop has noticed another trend in the region: “The demographic of natural history buyers in Asia tends to be younger than that of US and European buyers,” he says, adding that there are also active collectors in Japan and South Korea.
Many fossil collectors are intensely private, partly because of the controversy surrounding the trade in these rare artefacts. Following the sale of Stan, many palaeontologists and museum curators voiced their concerns that this rare dinosaur—one of the most complete T rex skeletons ever found—would be lost to science. When a fossil is sold at auction, the conditions of the sale rarely stipulate that the buyer must lend it to scientific studies or exhibit it publicly.
There was also outrage over the stratospheric price, partly because it was beyond the reach of many museums, but also because scientists believed the money could be better used to benefit academia and, ultimately, the public. David Evans, a palaeontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum and associate professor at the University of Toronto, tweeted: “I calculated that if the US$32 million was invested at 4 per cent per annum return rate, it could fund over 80 full, six-week expeditions per year, forever. Think of all the amazing specimens that would be found.”
Loaning out bones
While it remains unclear whether Stan’s mysterious new owner will loan the skeleton to museums or scientists, other collectors are making a concerted effort to share their treasures.
The largest dinosaur museum in the world is the Tianyu Museum of Nature in Shandong, China, which was founded by gold-mining tycoon Zheng Xiaoting. The Stephen Hui Geological Museum at the University of Hong Kong carries the name of the late mining engineer, geologist and philanthropist who donated his extensive rock, mineral and fossil collection to the university to establish the city’s first geological museum.
Chu founded the social group Singapore Fossil Collectors, which organises fossil exhibitions and meet-ups between fossil enthusiasts, and is behind the Travelling Natural History Museum, an initiative that sees Chu and other collectors bring their fossils to schools around the city-state.
“I see it as my duty to use the Travelling Natural History Museum to bring the science of palaeontology, the art of fossil collecting and the wonders of nature and imagination to schoolchildren,” says Chu.
“Singapore’s education system emphasises STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] heavily; there has traditionally not been much focus on natural history. I have also loaned parts of my collection to the Science Centre Singapore and the ArtScience Museum for exhibitions.”
Nothing in Chu’s collection is on the scale of a T rex—“though it would be nice to have a giant T rex skeleton one day,” he jokes—but he owns some unusual items.
“One of my rarest fossils is a tyrannosaurid mandible from a joint Russian-German expedition in the Seventies from Kazakhstan,” he says.
“It has an interesting provenance: it sat with a paleontologist of the Moscow Museum until the Berlin Wall fell, then it was sold to a Swiss collector, then a Belgian preparator sold it to me. I had reached out to a world authority on tyrannosaurs, to check if there was scientific value that might call for the specimen to be shared, but unfortunately the specimen did not come with detail that would be necessary for further academic study.”
Chu also owns a skull of a machairodus giganteus, the largest sabre-tooth cat to have ever existed, and a complete fossil of a Cretaceous raptor curled up in a sleeping position.
At the time of writing, Chu is not actively hunting for any particular fossil. “I have to say that with hundreds of specimens in my collection, I am pretty contented. But I regularly monitor the fossils market to see what major discoveries have been dug up.” And when he does find something special, he still feels the buzz he felt as a child. “Unlike many other objects of desire, each fossil is absolutely unique and one-of-a-kind in the world,” he says.
“When you look at a fossil, there is a sense of wonder that you are gazing upon an ancient life form.”