A baby dinosaur named Chomper is looking to take a bite out of the top-end of the art market at Frieze Masters this year. The exceptionally well-preserved specimen is priced at $20m, making it the most expensive juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever known to come to market. “It’s a once in a lifetime discovery,” says Salomon Aaron, the director of London’s David Aaron gallery, which is presenting the skeleton at the fair.
Unearthed by the third-generation cowboy Clayton Phipps in 2019 in Montana, US, and chronicled in the Discovery Channel series Dino Hunters, Chomper would have existed during the Late Cretaceous period around 68-66 million years ago. Only a handful of juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons have ever been discovered. As Aaron points out, the T-rex was an apex predator—“in most cases, they lived until adulthood, making finding a juvenile one exceedingly rare”.
Having taken nearly three years to remove the bones from the ground, Chomper is approximately 55% complete and its skull is more than 90% complete. Above and beyond the industry standard, David Aaron gallery provides a bone map that allows collectors to see the percentage completeness of each bone. “In this case it’s just a very complete specimen,” Aaron says.
Among Chomper’s distinguishing features are a strong bone colour (less well-preserved skeletons are often faded) and a high number of original teeth—hence Chomper, which is also the name of the baby dinosaur in the 1988 cartoon, The Land Before Time.
Dinosaurs are a more common sight at public auction. The 1997 sale of the Tyrannosaurus rex, Sue, at Sotheby’s for $8.3m was a turning point, but in 2020 Christie’s sold Stan the T-rex in an evening sale usually reserved for contemporary art. The masterstroke netted the consignor a record $30.8m.
Most fossil collectors are not contemporary art enthusiasts, however. Stan was acquired by the Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi, which is due to open in 2025. Aaron notes a “growing interest” from regions that are building museums, while private buyers “tend to be younger, and often from the sciences and tech space”.
But, that market is expanding. “It’s an area that’s been overlooked, partly due to presentation,” Aaron explains. “As an art gallery, we look for historically important, but also aesthetic fossils. We apply the rules of our due diligence, honed in the art market and applied to fossils. That gives buyers much more security in terms of understanding what they are buying and how it ranks relative to other specimens.”
Last November, Christie’s withdrew Shen the T-rex from an auction in Hong Kong, citing the need for “further study”. Estimated to fetch $15-$25m, the cancelled sale came after doubts were raised by a well-known palaeontologist over the number of replica bones used in the specimen.
The stakes can indeed be high in the fossil world, but, ultimately, genuine discoveries have a humbling effect. As Aaron says: “When we exhibit a triceratops or a T rex, the impact is incredible. It’s something all humans can relate to, irrespective of culture or age.”
At Frieze Masters, the gallery is also selling a 150-million-year-old Nanosaurus for a six-figure sum. The species was once considered to be the smallest dinosaur, "thriving on its wits at the feet of the Jurassic giants like T rex and Diplodocus," according to a gallery statement.