Sunday, November 22, 2009

Samson - An Update

Back in September, I posted on the forthcoming auction of a substantially complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus, called Samson, that was about to go under than hammer at a Bonham's auction in Las Vegas. For those of you who still don't know, it failed to reach its reserve price of $6 million; the highest bid was $3.7 m. The owner initially declined to part with Samson for less than the reserve, but on November 12 of this month Bonhams announced that a sale had been made. As ever, the buyer remains anonymous. Various news outlets trumpted this story as "Sampson is Heading for Museum," or headlines to that effect. This is not entirely true.

What's actually happened is that the new owner is trying to find a museum that is prepared to take Sampson on loan for the purposes of display. Now you might think that any self-respecting museum would jump at this opportunity but, as ever, it's not as simple as that. Sampson will take up a sizeable chunk of display space; will probably require the museum to shell out significantly to develop lighting and display content; and will require hefty insurance cover. And all of this assumes that the new owner will not be charging for the loan. It's far from clear that this will be the case - Bonham's auction catalog was quick to highlight the moneymaking opportunities presented by owning your own T. rex.

All of which means that if it were my museum that was interested in taking Sampson, I'd have lawyers crawling all over the loan agreement. I'd want a long loan period - maybe as much as 10 years - with first refusal on a renewal. I'd push hard for a cast specimen (at a discounted price), to permanently replace Sampson at the end of the loan. I'd want far-reaching waivers of liability for any damage incurred while on display and I'd probably insist on the donor handling care and maintenance, even if I had in-house expertise. I'd also be considering doing a deal to license any exhibit content I develop, for use with casts of Sampson that the owner is selling or loaning to other museums. And I'd want to be able to make the specimen available to visiting researchers as well as the general public; this would be subject to formal approval by the owner, but I'd want a "which will not normally be refused" clause. Actually, I probably want a lot more than this, which is why I raised a skeptical eyebrow when Bonham's spokesman said the new owner was planning on having it on display by Christmas. It may well be on display, but I doubt whether this will be in a museum.

So, is this a bad thing? I guess the answer is "not entirely." Sampson will be on exhibit, which is good. A canny museum, with good negotiators that can develop a partnership with the owner, could actually come out of this with a pretty sweet deal. And while this might be a novel situation for natural history museums, our colleagues in the art world would barely raise an eyebrow at the idea of borrowing a privately owned work for exhibit. Sampson is a bit more complicated than this, because there's more involved than just hanging a painting on a wall, but the general principles are the same. In an age when private ownership of fossils has become rather fashionable, we may have to swallow hard and get used to arrangements like this.

The downside, of course, is the issue of permanence. Another fact that emerged in the post-sale interviews is that the new owner is the third one that Sampson has had since it was discovered. If the skeleton remains in private ownership, it can be sold again and again; in these days of financial upheaval, that's a very real possibility. Which means that for all the good intentions of the current owner there's no certainty of access in the long-term, either for the public or for anyone wanting to carry out research on this specimen. As I've said many times before in this blog, this is why you put things in museums - so that future generations have a guarantee of access. This is why our community gets upset when universities like Brandeis start talking about selling off their collections and why I get twitchy when museum policy wonks get all gung-ho about deaccessioning.

So if you happen to be the mysterious new owner of Sampson, congratulations on your purchase and much kudos to you for moving quickly to get it onto public display. I urge you to put it in a museum (rather than a casino lobby, for example) and to partner with that museum to produce some really high-quality educational and exhibit material to make the best possible use of an extraordinary specimen. But beyond that, you should think seriously about donating the specimen. Yes, it's cool owning a T rex, and it did cost you a ton of money. But anonymous or not, donating it would put you into the big league of museum philanthropy, and earn you the gratitude of an army of future museum goers.

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