The Family Feud Behind a $32 Million T. Rex Named Stan

By Kelly Crow

Twenty-eight years ago, legendary paleontologist brothers Peter and Neal Larson dug a 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex out of the craggy, South Dakota ground. This month, Christie’s sold that skeleton, nicknamed Stan, for $32 million—a price that smashed the record paid for a fossil.

To outsiders, such a sale would appear to be a windfall for the siblings, fossil hunters who have spent decades discovering spectacular specimens. The T. rex sold for four times Christie’s high estimate, buoying the fall auctions and highlighting the thriving market for fossils.

Yet for the Larsons, the moment marked the culmination of a yearslong legal battle between the once-inseparable brothers. Paleontologists and curators hoped the sale of Stan, which was estimated to fetch between $6 million and $8 million, would bring the feuding Larson brothers some closure. But now friends worry Stan’s high price only deepened the bad blood between the brothers—because all of the money went to Neal.

“I figured they might still dislike each other, but there’s no way they’ll ever get over this,” said Mark Norell, chair of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the brothers built one of the West’s first, and pre-eminent, fossil-hunting enterprises, excavating 11 T. rexes and thousands of specimens now in museums and university collections around the world. They went site-to-site excavating dinosaurs, seeking permission from landowners who were typically paid fees for the access. Besides Stan, they are known for excavating the Field Museum’s T. rex in Chicago, nicknamed Sue, the reigning titleholder for priciest dinosaur at $8.4 million until Stan came to market.

Stan’s owner remains unknown, but curators say that based on recent collecting patterns, they suspect it is a private buyer outside the U.S.

Until a few years ago, the plan was for Stan to stay forever at the brothers’ Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, S.D. (pop. 1,018) But two years ago, a circuit-court judge sought to resolve a complex ownership dispute by ordering the brothers to divide the institute’s assets and part ways.

As part of the deal, the older brother, Peter, 68, got to keep the institute, with its 100,000-plus fossils and 5,000-square-foot private museum—an enterprise valued at roughly $5 million. Neal, 65, was given the right to sell its biggest asset, Stan, and keep the proceeds as his buyout. The deal was intended to be financially equal, but then Stan sold for $32 million. “That’s more than we’ve grossed in the entire history of our business,” said Peter.

Neal Larson says he always felt competitive toward his brother, and the seeds of dissension were planted at the start when Peter transformed his small mineral shop into a fossil-hunting partnership, giving himself 60% of the company, with Neal allotted 35% and another partner, Bob Farrar, 5%. Over the years, Peter developed an expertise in vertebrates like dinosaurs while Neal focused on invertebrates, like ammonites. At fossil trade shows, the older Larson tended to attract greater crowds. Neal said he once asked his brother if he could become an equal partner in the business and was turned down. Mr. Farrar, who has known the Larsons since college, said Neal “had that younger-brother thing where he always felt like a second-class citizen.”

“I did,” Neal said. “I was always trying to prove to everyone that I was as good as Pete.” His brother said he never felt the same way.

Friends said both brothers were embittered after they lost a lengthy legal battle in the mid-1990s over the bones of Sue, which they dug up but ultimately had to forfeit to a local rancher, who sold her at Sotheby’s. “The trauma from that older case still grates on this family, and I think it exacerbated any existing cracks,” said Kristin Donnan, Peter’s former wife and co-author of “Rex Appeal,” a book on the Sue ordeal. “Stan did what Sue couldn’t do: It broke up the family.”

“It’s like watching a road crash in slow motion,” said Phillip Manning, chair of natural history at the University of Manchester. “Watching two brilliant people not be able to get along is so sad, but that’s also human nature. We’re an unusual species.”

Conflict broke out into the open eight years ago when Peter Larson suspended, then fired, his brother. The reason why remains muddled, even in the court record, but both brothers said the trigger revolved around alleged personal affronts against each other and the team. (In interviews, the brothers didn’t agree on the details.) Peter said he reached a point where he was “done” with Neal, who said he was “blindsided and hurt” by his firing.

Three years later, in 2015, Neal filed a suit against his brother and others, alleging he was being oppressed as a shareholder and seeking to liquidate the entire company so he could get his 35% share of the assets and part ways.

There wasn’t enough cash to buy him out, court filings said. The court ruled that Neal’s shareholder rights had been violated—he should have been invited and allowed to speak at the meeting where he was fired—but it took several years to wrangle how the Larsons’ dinosaurs should be valued. The court ruled Neal should get Stan, whose appraised value of $6 million represented a “premium on his shares,” the ruling said. Peter and Mr. Farrar could retain the rest of the company.

At the time, Peter said he felt the ruling offered a “solution.” Neal said he never wanted Stan but had to sell him to pay bills. “As kids, we had a dream of starting a museum and Stan was always meant to stay with us,” he said.

Stan was considered the crown jewel of the institute. After the Larsons unearthed Stan in 1992, it changed the way scientists think about the T. rex. They named Stan after an amateur fossil hunter named Stan Sacrison who had noticed several vertebrae jutting out of the earth in 1987 but moved on after mistaking it for another, less-coveted triceratops. It measures 13 feet tall and 40 feet long and his skull is well-preserved, with 58 teeth, Mr. Manning, the Manchester paleontologist, said. More than 60 museums and universities have bought casts of Stan in part so paleontological students can study a version of his skull up close.

“He’s gobsmackingly gorgeous,” Mr. Manning said.

Stan also mattered to the institute’s bottom line because the Larsons trademarked Stan’s skull so it could create and sell its own resin casts—or even rent him out, short-term. Peter Larson said the outfit has sold more than 60 Stan casts for $100,000 apiece over the years, and its Rent-a-Rex program allows people to borrow Stan casts for $20,000 a month, to start. Mr. Farrar said the institute usually reinvests most of its money into funding digs, so cash shortfalls aren’t uncommon. As part of the court resolution, Peter will retain Stan’s trademark and copyright so the institute can keep making casts—those rights were not part of the Christie’s sale. “Neal just got the bones,” he said.

During the livestreamed Oct. 6 auction, Peter Larson said he watched it alone in his Hill City, S.D., home, drinking a beer. He said he felt “pretty somber” at the outset but as a three-way bidding war pushed Stan’s price to record levels, he said he couldn’t help rooting for it. “It proved we’d done well, that people still love fossils,” he said.

Neal Larson didn’t get to watch the action because of his patchy internet connection at his log cabin home, so a friend texted him a play-by-play. By the time the gavel fell, he said his wife and children were sobbing with relief. “It was surreal,” he said.

For now, Peter is focused on restructuring the institute so “something horrible like this never happens again,” he said. He’s not anticipating a reunion with Neal anytime soon. He spotted his brother in town a few days after Stan sold—the pair live less than 2 miles away from each other on the same winding road near Mount Rushmore—but said, “We didn’t speak.”

Neal said, “I just need some time.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *