Privacy at stake in Tyrannosaurus court case

(Photo by Heritage Auctions)

“Somebody doesn’t put something like this in a major auction that is broadcast and promoted worldwide if they have got something to hide. If there is a title problem, you go and sell it secretly to someone in a backroom for a suit case full of cash. That is something we have nothing to do with.”

This quote comes from Gregory Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions, in response to concerns about provenance for a nearly complete T-Rex fossil that sold for just over a million dollar yesterday. Mongolian president Elbegdorj Tsakhia  had sought to prevent the sale. The court documents for a temporary restraining order contend that the specimen originated in Mongolia, and that the export of fossils excavated in Mongolia is a criminal offense under the country’s law.

Heritage counters by saying the specimen entered the United States legally, and that “the consignors warranted in writing to Heritage that they hold clear title to the fossils.” Heritage has not released the identity of the consignors, citing a need to protect confidentiality. The completion of sale is pending court approval.

This situation comes up time and again for auction houses. It’s a tough balancing act to protect client confidentiality and provide adequate provenance. Is it enough to say that the consignors have warranted the facts in writing? Speaking from experience, I can tell you that would not be satisfactory for some people. The current case will be watched closely with much interest, as the outcome will reverberate through the auction and collectibles industry. In particular, whether or not the court forces Heritage to reveal the consignors’ identities will have lasting implications. If the ruling goes against Heritage and future consignors cannot be guaranteed privacy protection, I would expect more “backroom” deals in the future.

Update: The dinosaur fossil in question is not that of a T-Rex, but rather it’s a Tyrannosaurus bataar–a species that is an Asian relative to the North American Tyrannosaurus rex.


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