Maximus the T. Rex skull sells for US$6.1m at Sotheby's, far below estimate

Dinosaur fossils have been the latest hot commodity at auctions in recent years. In 2020, a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil known as STAN sold for a record-setting US$31.8 million at Christie's New York. Earlier this year, a Velociraptor skeleton has gone for US$12.4 million at Christie's New York, followed by a Gorgosaurus for US$6.1 million at Sotheby’s New York. 

Capitalising on the booming market, Sotheby's brought one of the most complete T. Rex skulls, named Maximus, to the auction block on 9 December. While it was expected to fetch between US$15 and 20 million, it ended up selling for just US$6.1 million with fees, prompting the market to wonder: has the art market lost its appetite for dinosaurs?

Maximus, Tyrannosaurus Rex Skull
Hell Creek Formation, Maastrichtian, Late Cretaceous (approx. 67 million years ago)
Height on stand: Approximately 202.5 cm
Weight: Approximately 160.25 lbs; with stand: 609 lbs

  • Excavated over field seasons in 2020 and 2021 on private land, Hell Creek Formation, Harding County, South Dakota

Estimate: US$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Sold: US$6,069,500
Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Date: 9 December 2022

With concerns raised by academic paleontologists, the recent sky-high fossil sales have been surrounded by quite a bit of controversies.

Last month, a Hong Kong auction of a larger T. Rex, which had been expected to bring in US$15 to 20 million, was forced to be pulled after questions regarding the number of original bones in the skeleton arose. In a market driven by confidence, such cancellation might have cooled the enthusiasm for dinosaur fossils. 

Although the Maximus fell short of expectation, Sotheby's wrote in a statement that they were pleased with the result. As the no-reserve auction was designed to gauge the market, it has now set a new benchmark for dinosaur fossils at auction.

The present skull was discovered and excavated over field seasons in 2020 and 2021 on private land in Harding County, South Dakota, in what is known is the Hell Creek Formation. 

This geological formation, which stretches over portions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, is world-renowned for yielding more T.rex material than anywhere else, having also produced Sue, the first dinosaur fossil ever sold at auction, which fetched a record $8.3 million at Sotheby’s in 1997, and the abovementioned Stan.

T.rex aside, the site is also well-known for the excavation of other popular dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period,  including that of Triceratops, Edmontosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, and many others.

Hell Creek Formation, where the skull was excavated

Sue, the first dinosaur ever auctioned

Stan, the most expensive dinosaur fossil ever sold at auction

Named Maximus, its title conferred upon the greatest of military commanders in Ancient Rome, honoring its reputation as a hunter and fighter. 

With an imposing height of 202.5 cm, the 67-million-year-old skull is one of the most complete skull of its kind ever discovered, with 30 of the 39 total bones of being original. 

The dig site where the T. rex skull was unearthed had been severely weathered over time, and most of the skeleton was destroyed by erosion; by a great stroke of luck, the skull survived. Extremely rare for a specimen of its kind, all the tooth bearing jaw elements are preserved, as are most of the external bones on both right and left sides of the skull. Comparisons have also determined it to be the skull of an adult individual. 

To strengthen the buyer's confidence, the purchase is accompanied by full documentation certifying condition, authenticity, and legality of ownership, including osteograph, bone inventory, field photographs, and preparation notes.