About Utah: Dino still looking for good new home

Published: Wednesday, March 25 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

LEHI — Of course brothers Clark and Cliff Miles are disappointed that their 150 million-year-old dryosaurus didn't sell at auction this past weekend in New York, where no potential buyers came up with the minimum bid of $280,000.

But they aren't surprised that dinosaurs aren't fetching top dollar these days. What is?

Like the rest of America, the Miles brothers, along with Ron Mjos and Jeffrie Parker, their partners at Western Paleontological Laboratories Inc., are just trying to keep the lights on and make payroll.

That's what motivated them to ship one of their pride-and-joy specimens — a 9-foot long dryosaurus dinosaur from the Jurassic era — to the I.M. Chait Auction House in New York City.

The fossilized dryosaurus bones were unearthed at a private quarry in southern Wyoming 16 years ago and meticulously pieced back together in Western Paleontological's lab in Lehi.

Only one other intact dryosaurus exists, at a museum in Pittsburgh, and it's smaller and not as good-looking.

There is no finer dryosaurus skeleton to be found on the face of the Earth.

Ordinarily, Western Paleontological doesn't hawk its handicraft to the general public. Only about 1 percent of its skeletons and cast replicas are in private hands.

"But we want to stay in business and pay our people and do our science," says Clark Miles. "Sometimes it comes to the point where we have to sell it any way we can."

"We're not in this business for the wealth," adds Cliff Miles. "We're in this business for the science."

Western Paleontological was started in 1989 and has since contributed mightily to fossil preservation, providing skeletons and casts to museums and universities around the world.

Most notably it designed and built the North American Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point, the world's largest dinosaur museum, where, of the more than 60 mounted dinosaurs on display, many are Western Paleontological's work.

But although its offices adjoin the Thanksgiving Point museum, the company remains a separate business entirely.

Hence, the need sometimes to get immersed in the modern world of dollars and cents.

Periodically, a rare and expertly restored dinosaur skeleton fetches the big bucks that keep the light bills paid.

A few years ago, a 55-foot Camarasaurus was bought for $1.3 million by the Gunma Museum of Natural History in Japan.

And in the company's biggest sale, a meat-eating Ceratosaurus, was sold for $1.6 million to a private individual who then gifted the bones to the North American Museum of Ancient Life.

But the absence lately of any large sales precipitated taking dryosaurus to the New York auction.

Not only was getting as much as $500,000 for the rare skeleton a distinct possibility, but there was also a reasonable expectation that a museum would buy the dryosaurus and keep it in the public arena.

And even if a private party bought the skeleton, that didn't mean it wouldn't later be gifted to a public museum.

"Eventually, private collections tend to end up in museums or as museums," notes Clark Miles.

Alas, the dryosaurus didn't attract a buyer, private or public, and is on its way back to Utah as we speak.

But it's still for sale to all comers, say the Miles brothers, as long as the offer is in the $300,000 ballpark.

Anyone with a reasonable-size living room could have an exceptional conversation piece.

And since the bones have had 150 million years to harden, it's more durable than you'd think.

"Although you wouldn't want to play tennis around it," cautions Clark Miles.

If no buyer materializes in the near future, it's on to Plan B: Dryosaurus will become the premier piece in a Children's Traveling Exhibit that will make the rounds of the country's museums early next year.

"That way a museum can bring it into their facility for a lot less than it costs to buy an entire dinosaur," says Clark Miles.

The rub being that they don't get to keep it.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com

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