The dinosaur skull was advertised as “perfect for a New York City apartment,” though with a starting bid of $100,000, it was clear that the apartment in question was not, say, a studio in a walk-up.
What the I. M. Chait Gallery billed as its “natural history” auction — held yesterday at a rented showroom on Fifth Avenue at 29th Street, as well as by telephone and on eBay — was a child’s dream, a wealthy person’s playground and a curator’s nightmare.
The showroom resembled miniature versions of the rooms at the American Museum of Natural History. Fossils were displayed all around, and meteorites lined the shelves. Nearly all 345 items up for bid were available to touch.
They included an Egyptian mummy’s hand; lion, hyena and warthog skulls; a gold nugget weighing 62 troy ounces; and (behind glass, but touchable on request) crystals, minerals and a meteorite from Mars.
The prize skull, from a Tyrannosaurus bataar, a close relative of the T. rex, sat in the center of the room, with no barriers around it. It went for a bid of $276,000 phoned in by a private collector on the West Coast whom the gallery would not identify.
The skull, estimated to be about 67 million years old, is 32 inches long and 65 percent complete, with the rest of it, including the lower right jaw and the back of the skull, having been restored with casts, said David Herskowitz, the director of the gallery’s natural history department.
He obtained the specimen last summer, he said, after a collector in Florida contacted him and said that he had acquired it from a Japanese collector who had been storing the skull — which was still embedded in rock, or the matrix — in a box since the early 1960s.
Paleontologists around the country have watched in pain in recent years as fossils, skeleton parts and other prized artifacts have gone on the block. In December, Christie’s auctioned an Egyptian wooden sarcophagus with a male mummy inside to a private American collector for $1.1 million. In 1997, the Field Museum in Chicago paid $8.36 million at auction for a Tyrannosaurus rex, which had been named Sue, that had about 85 percent of its bones largely intact.
Some scientists worry that such prices lead to frenzied excavations and, as a result, the loss of valuable scientific information. Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at University of California, Berkeley, said that private collectors recover the fossils but miss pieces of the puzzle that paleontologists cherish, like the circumstances of the environment, the way the fossil was entombed, and remnants of any soft tissue in vertebrate fossils. “We’re losing science, we’re losing education, we’re losing valuable specimens,” he said.
But private collectors argue that without the profit incentive, interesting specimens would continue to decay in the earth as seasons change, perhaps never to be exhumed.
“If the American commercial paleontologist isn’t looking for this stuff, it won’t be found,” said Darryl Pitt, 51, of New York, the owner of one of the world’s largest meteorite collections. “It has sent Bedouins and Berbers searching the desert.”
For more than a century, mummies and other artifacts have been taken out of Egypt, sometimes with its government’s permission, sometimes without. In recent years, Egypt has pressed foreign museums to return some important items.
The Egyptian mummy’s hand was expected to go to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! organization, but it lost to Anders Karlsson, a gallery owner in Santa Monica, Calif. Mr. Karlsson, who paid $4,500, said that he would not put the hand up for sale, that it was going to become a family heirloom.
“Hopefully,” he said, “it doesn’t have any bad seeds attached to it.”
It was the only item in the auction not available on eBay because the Web site has limitations on the sale of body parts.
The hand was traced to an antique dealer in New Jersey who got it from the British Museum. A New York collector then acquired it in the 1960s, said Mr. Herskowitz, the Chait gallery’s natural history director. He said it was acquired before Egypt enacted a law prohibiting the export of its cultural heritage.
The most expensive item sold yesterday was the dinosaur skull. Its new owner also won a rare giant wolf skull from the Rancho La Brea Formation for $50,000.
It was not known what kind of house, apartment or gallery the skull would be going to, though Mr. Herskowitz hinted that the buyer has been known to show his collection to the public.
“Someday,” he said, “you might see it.”