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Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 12 News List

T. rex stakes its claim on the No.1 spot in the auction charts

The biggest new thing this summer is old news -- but it's making waves all over the auction world

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

Thomas Lindgren, a specialist in natural history at Bonhams & Butterfields Auctioneers, holding a real T-rex tooth.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When Japheth Boyce was a tyke in South Dakota, he liked to scrabble around in the barren, rocky soil of the Badlands, hunting for fossils of saber-toothed tigers, rhinoceroses and three-toed horses the size of golden retrievers.

Years later, as a professional paleontologist with a penchant for cowboy hats and home-spun philosophy, his favorite prey is Tyrannosaurus rex, the carnivorous dinosaur he calls "the biggest and baddest boy on the block."

Last Sunday, hundreds of fossilized bones from a 68-million-year-old T. rex that Boyce and his team spent two years digging up in eastern Wyoming will be sold in what is being billed as the largest auction of natural history items to date. The T. rex's bones, which comprise about 20 percent of the animal, nicknamed Barnum, are expected to fetch at least US$900,000.

It is only the second T. rex auction in history. In 1997, a dinosaur named Sue that had been found near Faith, Southern Dakota, with about 85 percent of its bones largely intact, including a 1,400kg skull, went to the Field Museum in Chicago for US$8.3 million.

Barnum is all the more intriguing, experts say, because the specimens here may be part of the first T. rex ever found, which is housed at the Museum of Natural History in London. After talking with museum officials, Boyce went to London a week ago to compare samples of the two, and he said they match.

"I'm saying that, as a statement of scientific fact, it's the same animal," Boyce said in an interview. "I've got circumstantial evidence and hard evidence."

The Barnum bones, he noted, were found in the same 5km2 plot of land near Newcastle, Wyoming, as the remains in London, which were found in 1900 and acquired by the British museum in 1960. Moreover, he said, several of the fragments are complementary in terms of size, fit and texture.

But the British museum is keeping quiet about the comparison, and there is some speculation among experts here -- none of whom will speak about it for the record -- that the museum prefers not to raise interest in a fossil on which it might wish to bid.

Two of the British museum's officials with direct knowledge of the case, Angela Milner and Sandra Chapman, did not return calls and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Boyce, who arrived at the museum in London last week in what he calls "high rodeo drag" -- Stetson, cowboy boots and a beaded vest woven by a Native American woman -- said he believed the British officials were simply awaiting the outcome of a peer review before declaring their position.

The skeleton in London is 13.8 percent complete. If it were combined with the newer discovery, it would be one of the most complete T. rex skeletons in the world, Boyce and other paleontologists said.

"The importance lies in the fact that they could potentially be reunited," said Tom Lindgren, director of paleontology at Bonhams and Butterfields, the auction house that is handling the sale.

"They have such a historical significance. This was the first T. rex ever found -- they just didn't complete the task."

That is, until Japheth Boyce came along.

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