The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur

A dinosaur named Sue reigns at The Field Museum in Chicago. Meet the famous and fearsome T.rex and the paleontologist who cares for her. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The dinosaur head rested on a cushion — 600 spectacular pounds of dead weight on display and on the block at Sotheby’s in New York.

“Sue,” as the Tyrannosaurus rex was known, had no shortage of suitors after coming from the South Dakota Badlands to the Upper East Side auction house in search of a new habitat. Few, though, found Sue more bewitching than the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which very much wanted the fossil to fill a T. rex-sized hole in its dinosaur collection.

Now, on Oct. 4, 1997 — the day that dramatically changed the market for dinosaur bones — she was available to anyone with a bidding paddle and a bankroll.

“I begin with a bid of $500,000,” Sotheby’s auctioneer David Redden said to open the high-stakes sale.

In a private suite above the auction floor, above the skull that measured five feet in length, with serrated teeth the size of bananas, Scott Chinery was eager to bid on the most famous example of the most famous dinosaur species, on behalf of the Natural History Museum.

“The Smithsonian should have this T. rex,” he’d said in the weeks before the sale.


Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever found, is displayed as part of the permanent collection at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. (Brett T. Roseman/For The Washington Post)

The dinosaur was riding an enormous wave of publicity as the largest, most complete T. rex fossil ever unearthed. She also had an enthralling backstory: An FBI-led task force had seized Sue from the commercial bone dealers who found the fossil, and the ensuing custody battle had played out in federal court.

Sotheby’s estimated Sue’s value at “$1 million plus,” although, Redden recalled recently, “no fossil had ever sold for more than $500,000 or $600,000.”

Chinery, a nascent Smithsonian benefactor who had made his fortune in the nutritional-supplements business, was prepared to spend as much as $2.5 million to bring Sue to the world’s most-visited natural history museum.

It wasn’t nearly enough.

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago made off with Sue for a staggering sum, forever complicating fossil collection efforts and sending the Smithsonian on a long, frustrating search for an alternative.


After decades of trying to acquire a Tyrannosaurus rex, the National Museum of Natural History will welcome one next week, fresh from a 2,100-mile road trip from Bozeman, Mont. (Bonnie Berkowitz and Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post)

Now, nearly 17 years later — a blip compared with the 65-million-plus years since dinosaurs went extinct but an eternity in modern museum development — Washington is finally getting its king lizard tyrant: a smaller T. rex that will come to the Mall on a 50-year loan from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns it, and the state of Montana, where it has been since the late Cretaceous period.

Dubbed “the Nation’s T. rex,” the unmounted specimen is being trucked from Bozeman to Washington, where it will be unpacked April 15 and eventually serve as the centerpiece of a new National Fossil Hall, opening in 2019.

“After the sale of Sue, dinosaur bones were hot,” said Randall Kremer, the museum’s public affairs director who represented the Smithsonian at the 1997 auction. “They continue to be hot to this day. Fortunately, we’ve acquired a marvelous specimen of our own, so we no longer have to think back to Sue and wonder what might have been.”

Ferocious fossil fight

The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum trails only the Louvre in number of museum visits, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. Two-thirds of its estimated 8 million visitors last year passed through the Fossil Hall.

The star of the soon-to-be-shuttered hall is a life-size replica of “Stan,” a T. rex that was found in South Dakota in the 1980s. The $100,000 fabricated fossil went on display in 1999, not long after the Smithsonian lost out on Sue, and many visitors don’t realize or care that it’s a cast. But museum officials do.


Visitors walk past "Stan," a life-size T. rex replica, at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

“If I said I have a glass replica of the Hope Diamond, you’d be less impressed,” said Kirk Johnson, the Natural History Museum’s director. The real Hope Diamond, he said, is the crown jewel of the museum’s collection — but it might have been rivaled by Sue.

About 50 T. rex specimens have been unearthed since the species was identified in 1905, but only a quarter of them are considered nearly complete, meaning more than half the dinosaur’s bones were retrieved. The Smithsonian’s incoming T. rex, found in 1988 in a federally owned Montana wildlife refuge, is about 80 to 85 percent complete, Johnson said. By comparison, the seven-ton Sue is more than 90 percent complete — and, at 42 feet from snout to tail, several feet longer than the Smithsonian’s specimen.

“She’s really something spectacular,” said Peter Larson, who led the efforts to excavate Sue, then fought an unsuccessful legal battle to retain the rights to the fossil. “She was the true love of my life.”

The dinosaur was named for Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the bone-hunter’s holy grail in 1990 on a ranch on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Larson’s Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, for whom Hendrickson was working, gave the now-deceased rancher, Maurice Williams, a $5,000 check for the find. But after the fossil was extracted, Williams said he wanted Sue back. Cheyenne River Sioux leaders did, too, saying she should be theirs.

Prosecutors ordered her seizure, and the custody battle moved to federal court, where Sue was awarded to Williams. A federal grand jury, meanwhile, returned a 39-count indictment against Larson and his associates, mostly for fossil theft unrelated to Sue. He was found guilty of two felony charges and sentenced to two years in federal prison.

Redden became captivated by the tale of Sue’s afterlife. “So I called Maurice Williams,” he said, “and asked if he’d like any help from Sotheby’s.”

Redden, who joined the storied auction house in 1974, met with Williams to discuss what Sue might fetch at an auction — and who might buy her.

“I felt very strongly that it had to go to a public institution,” not a private collector, Redden said. “We weren’t selling something that should go to a decorator.”

By human standards, Sue the T. rex died young at 28. But for a dinosaur, she had a host of ailments akin to a senior citizen. See how her skeleton tells the story at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Sue’s fate was the subject of rampant speculation among paleontologists, who feared that the fossil might slip beyond the reach of scientific study and public delight. To tilt the playing field, Sotheby’s gave American institutions the option to pay over three years. “It meant they could bid without having all the money in hand and do retrospective fundraising,” Redden said.

As a debate raged over whether a precious, priceless piece of natural history should be sold, Chinery flew to Washington on a private jet and met with Smithsonian officials.

The Natural History Museum’s dinosaur exhibition, in what was originally known as the Hall of Extinct Monsters, opened a few years after the 1905 discovery of Tyrannosaurus rex. Nearly nine decades later, the museum still didn’t have a T. rex. Richard Benson, a late paleobiology chairman, coveted one to begin a “world-class dinosaur program,” recalled Michael Brett-Surman, a longtime Smithsonian paleontologist.

Redden had settled on an unusual estimate of “$1 million plus,” although he believed Sue would sell for much more. So did Brett-Surman, who predicted to Benson that the price would surpass $5 million. “But he said: ‘You’re crazy — no one’s going to pay $5 million for a single fossil,’ ” Brett-Surman said.

The Smithsonian was hardly the only institution kicking the tires. In Chicago, Field Museum officials became enamored with the thought of scoring Sue.

“We did not have an iconic specimen, and we wanted one,” said John McCarter, then the Field’s president and chief executive and now chairman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents.

McCarter hit up Fred Turner, then-chief executive of McDonald’s Corp., which had financed several projects at the Field. “I got about 30 seconds into my pitch,” McCarter said, “and Fred said, ‘You mean to tell me this is the world’s most complete, largest T. rex?’ I told him yes. He said, ‘We’re in.’ ”

McDonald’s and Ronald McDonald House Charities brought the Walt Disney Co. on board, a move pivotal to helping the Field score Sue, Redden said. In fact, the Sotheby’s auctioneer had offered to call Disney boss Michael Eisner on behalf of the Smithsonian, which also was looking for corporate support.

“But they called back, saying, ‘We’re terribly sorry, but the Walt Disney Company is not interested,’ ” Redden remembered. “Well, the reason they weren’t interested is they were already working with the Field.” His phone call, he said, was “perhaps two days too late.”

Secret bidders

On the day of the sale, uncertainty filled the main auction room at Sotheby’s. “There were rumors flying that Michael Jackson was bidding,” said Betsy Bennett, then-director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which had built a massive war chest in pursuit of Sue.

On the advice of a savvy Chicago art dealer, the Field had played down its interest, even indicating to Sotheby’s that the museum was out of the running.

In fact, the identities of most of the 20 bidders were under wraps — and have never been revealed. The North Carolina museum was one of the few that was open about its intentions.

Another was South Dakota businessman Stan Adelstein, who had gone to New York on behalf of the Black Hills Institute “with, like, $1.2 million in his pocket” to bring Sue home, said Larson, the commercial collector. “We figured she might go for as high as $1 million, just because she’s so spectacular.”


Visitors to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago admire Sue. (Brett T. Roseman/For The Washington Post)

Sue is seen on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. (Brett T. Roseman/For The Washington Post)

In the Smithsonian’s private suite, Chinery held a telephone receiver in his hand, waiting to bid. Chinery, who died in 2000, was an avid collector of many things. But he was best known for his museum-quality collection of vintage guitars, some of which had been displayed at the National Museum of American History.

In his suite, confidence was high. Kremer, who’d bonded with Chinery over their mutual adoration of guitars, even carried a short speech in his coat pocket, to be delivered once Sue was Washington-bound.

Bidding opened at $500,000 and surpassed $1 million in what seemed like a matter of seconds. “We were kind of puzzled,” Kremer said, “because people kept raising their hands, moving very quickly.”

Adelstein dropped out after bidding $1.7 million — half a million more than he’d intended to spend. “Holy man,” Larson said, listening on the phone from South Dakota, where he was on home confinement after being released from prison.

Chinery never bid. The price surpassed his limit too quickly, Kremer said, “and Scott just put down the phone.”

As bidding soared in $100,000 increments, the group from the Field lurked. Sotheby’s officials had no idea they were in the building — just that there was a private room reserved for Richard Gray, a veteran of high-ticket art auctions, on behalf of a mystery client.

Gray had been asked by his longtime friend McCarter to help the museum acquire Sue, and he saw no good reason to join the bidding early. But the contingent from North Carolina was in on the action from the start. “When we bid $5 million, we were the only museum on the Sotheby’s floor,” Bennett said. “So everybody cheered.”

Then, the Field jumped in, and it became a three-way bidding war that included another mystery figure on the phone.

Jay I. Kislak, a Florida real estate baron and philanthropist, had decided to take a shot at Sue on behalf of his cultural foundation, even though it had never focused on dinosaur-related objects. According to Arthur Dunkelman, director and curator of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, his boss planned to give the dinosaur to a Florida institution. “We weren’t going to keep it in our atrium,” he said.

The price kept climbing, and the North Carolina museum placed its final bid: $7.2 million.

Kislak bumped it to $7.3 million.

Gray went to $7.4 million on behalf of the Field.

There was a pause, and then Kislak bumped it up once more: $7.5 million.

That was the Field’s limit, said Peter Crane, then-director of the museum’s research and collections. “But Richard Gray said, ‘Let’s just do one more. That might be somebody else’s limit.’ ”

He was right. Redden dropped the hammer at $7.6 million, which went to Williams, the rancher in South Dakota. Including Sotheby’s commission, the final cost exceeded $8.3 million. Millions of years after an extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs, fossil collecting had changed in about eight minutes.

“We never thought of our stuff as being valued the way a Monet might be,” Kremer said. “People were flabbergasted. It was a cataclysmic event in the scientific community.”

Among other things, the sale made it increasingly difficult for paleontologists to collect fossils on private land, with once-hospitable landowners looking to strike it rich by working with for-profit bone hunters. Federal lands were also jeopardized as the fossil market overheated. Two months after the auction, the North Carolina museum paid $3 million for an Acrocanthosaurus, an earlier predator.

“After Sue sold, it was truly frightening,” said Vincent L. Santucci, a National Park Service geologist who spent years investigating fossil poachers. “You heard people saying, ‘I’m going to give up my blue-collar job and move out West to find my million-
dollar dinosaur.’ And it was worth the risk doing it on federal lands because of the economic rewards that might be gained.”

Dinosaurs received some protective cover five years ago, when Congress imposed new civil and criminal penalties for fossil theft on federal lands. As a result, Santucci said, the bad actors aren’t acting nearly as bad. “Or maybe,” he said, “the bad guys are getting sneakier.”

Fanfare for a dinosaur

In the moments after the auction, nobody but the men in the Field Museum’s suite knew where Sue was going. And they were busy celebrating with champagne.

Eventually, Gray emerged to say, “I have the pleasure to announce that Sue will spend her next birthday . . . on the shores of Lake Michigan, at the renowned Field Museum of Natural History.”

The room erupted.


This May 2000 file photo shows Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found, on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green/The Associated Press)

The Field Museum put Sue on permanent display in 2000 in front of massive crowds. Attendance has slipped in recent years, and the museum has struggled with its finances. But Sue, admired by 21 million visitors since she arrived, has become a beloved Chicago icon that, McCarter said, was “absolutely worth it.”

Redden, the auctioneer, thinks of the T. rex often. “I am the greatest collector in the world of Sue memorabilia,” he said. He has Sue coffee mugs, Sue scarves, Sue umbrellas, “even a snow globe in which the snow is blood red.”

After losing out on Sue, the Natural History Museum’s efforts shifted to finding a T. rex on federal lands while using the Stan replica as a stopgap. Kremer, the lone Smithsonian official at the 1997 auction, rarely thinks about the world’s most famous fossil anymore, he said. And he still hasn’t seen Sue in her new habitat: The Field Museum was closed the one time he tried to see the one that got away.


J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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