SINGAPORE - In 2020, 79 bones belonging to a Tyrannosaurus rex (T-Rex) was excavated from a remote ranch on fossil-rich land in Montana in the United States.
Between Oct 28 and 30, the dinosaur skeleton - assembled from the uncovered bones and additional casts - will be displayed at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, before it goes to auction on Nov 30 in Hong Kong.
This will be the first Asian auction of a T-Rex skeleton, whose estimated value in this particular case is between US$15 million and US$25 million (S$21 million and S$36 million).
The most popular dinosaur species has not yet been displayed in a museum in Asia, said auction house Christie's Hong Kong.
The three-day public preview of the T-Rex, named Shen, is free but visitors need to register in advance via this link.
Shen means god-like in Chinese, but the skeleton's buyer can rename it. The 1,400kg fossilised skeleton will headline Christie's 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
However, the auctioning of rare fossils - especially high-profile sales of dinosaurs - has historically been contentious because wealthy private collectors can outbid museums that showcase such key relics of natural history.
Palaeontologists worry that if a dinosaur fossil is stored away in a private collector's basement, for instance, it will not be accessible to the public or scientists.
Dr Makoto Manabe, deputy director of Tokyo's National Museum of Nature and Science, said: "If fossils are really important in science, they should be studied and scrutinised for generations to come in the public domain. Nobody owns the fossils."
Renowned American palaeontologist Jack Horner added that specimens do not have much scientific value if researchers do not have access to the excavation site.
"Details of the site are important to possibly determine the animals' cause of death, and geologic context reveals its potential evolutionary status," he said.
In the US, fossils found on private property belong to the landowner.
Fossils show humanity how living things, landscapes and climate have changed over time.
Christie's head of science and natural history James Hyslop added: "Every T-Rex find is different... Shen the T-Rex preserves some of the very rare bones from the tip of the tail. Other bones have bite marks that tell part of the story of how these animals lived and fought."
Osteoarthritis was also detected in Shen, which is believed to be male.
So far, only two T-Rex skeletons have ever been auctioned, and both went to museums.
In 1997, Sue was bought for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, with financial backing from organisations like McDonald's. In 2020, Stan was auctioned for a staggering US$31.8 million, and it will go to the upcoming Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi.
But a Gorgosaurus skeleton from Sotheby's was auctioned off to an undisclosed buyer in July.
In 2021, a Paris auction house sold the world's largest triceratops skeleton to a private collector in the US. In May, the most complete Deinonychus skeleton ever found, according to Christie's, was sold to an unknown buyer.
In response to queries from The Straits Times, Mr Hyslop said: "Given its scale and significance, it is possible that a private buyer may loan or donate (Shen) to a museum, and it is also possible that the skeleton will be purchased directly by a museum."
About 67 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous era, Shen prowled and hunted on the Hell Creek Formation - layers of rock that stretch over parts of Wyoming, South and North Dakota, and Montana.
While only 79 of about 380 bones of the T-Rex were uncovered, Shen is 54 per cent represented by bone density - where weighted percentage values are assigned to each bone. No bone is equal, and a thigh bone carries more weight than a toe bone.
Larger bones have more scientific value as well, since more features and evidence of injury or disease can be detected in larger bones, said Mr Hyslop.
After the skeleton was studied by two leading palaeontologists from the United Kingdom and the US, Shen was prepped and mounted in an accurate hunting pose in a German lab.
The predator is 12.2m long and stands 4.6m high, with its serrated teeth bared ferociously.
One of the two experts, University of Manchester Professor of Palaeontology John Nudds said Shen's skull is incredibly complete and well-preserved, including the jaw, dentary bones which hold teeth, and the skull and nasal bones.
Prof Nudds is also looking to set new standards in the private ownership of vertebrate fossils so that the skeletons will not be lost to science after they are handed to private collectors.
He is completing a digital 3D record of Shen's every bone using a technique called photogrammetry. "The 3D record will be available in perpetuity for researchers to study and to print 3D models of every bone," he added.
Prof Nudds also said that top academic experts have already researched Shen's fossil, and their findings - to be published - will advance researchers' understanding of theropod palaeontology.
A T-Rex was a type of theropod - carnivores with small forelimbs, among other features.
Local fossil collector and author of children's series Fossil Finders Andy Chua said: "The positives of auctioning fossils for private collection is that anyone can now bring home an actual bone from a dinosaur."
He also noted that some dinosaur fossils sent to museums have gone missing, mysteriously.
"While a landowner is well within his rights to sell the dinosaur, I would strongly encourage him to give the first right of refusal to museums, and at the very least, allow them to make casts of that specimen for future research," said Mr Chua.
Private collectors in Singapore mainly buy and sell fossils such as Spinosaurus teeth and trilobites via online sites including eBay and Carousell.
For rare fossils, collectors here rely on traders and diggers overseas, he added.
But Mr Chua draws the line on keeping early human fossils.
"Fossils of which only one or two specimens exist in the world should be handed over to scientists, but I wouldn't fault the collector for requesting compensation or naming rights."
Previous dino fossil auctions
Lived about 76 million years ago, considered a cousin species to the T-Rex. The first specimen of its kind to be auctioned and available for private ownership.
Found: Private land, Judith River Formation, Montana, 2018
When auctioned: July 2022
Price: US$6.1 million (S$8.7 million)
Auction house: Sotheby's
Sold to: Undisclosed buyer
Stan the T-Rex
One of the most complete T-Rex skeletons found, with 190 bones.
Found: Hell Creek Formation, South Dakota, 1987
When auctioned: October 2020
Price: US$31.8 million, world auction record for any dinosaur skeleton
Auction house: Christie's in New York
Given to: Upcoming Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi
Big John, the triceratops
A well-known species with its trademark three horns. Big John had the largest skull ever found on a triceratops.
Found: Hell Creek Formation, South Dakota, 2014
When auctioned: October 2021
Price: US$7.7 million
Auction house: Binoche et Giquello and Hotel Drouot
Sold to: Anonymous US collector
A deinonychus - a smaller and more agile predator - that lived about 115 million years ago. This species inspired the velociraptor in Jurassic Park.
Found: Wolf Creek Canyon, Montana, between 2012 and 2014
When auctioned: May 2022
Price: US$12.4 million
Auction house: Christie's in New York
Sold to: Undisclosed buyer in Asia