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Dinosaur bones for sale, at auction

The fossils that the Dino Cowboy discovered are nearly full intact.

Clayton at the Dueling Dinos Excavation Site in 2006.

This November, auction house Bonhams has something a little unusual coming on the block: Two fighting dinosaurs.

Well, their bones anyway.

First discovered back in 2006, the fossils could be a major discovery for the scientific community, with the remains locked in what appears to be fighting positions, buried together. But after some negotiations with museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, the fossils will now be sold to the highest bidder, for somewhere in the range of $7 million.

One of the people behind the find is Clayton Phipps, a man who calls himself the Dino Cowboy. Based in Montana, the home to a wealth of dinosaur bone discoveries over the years, the former rancher got into the dino bone hunting game almost by accident.

"When I first started doing this, it was more of a hobby," says Phipps. "Then about four years into it, I went fossil hunting and I found a little 'dragon' skull."

That 'dragon' skull was worth some very real money -- around $40,000, enough to last him and his family for about a year.

"I told my wife, 'I think I want to quit my job and see if I can do this,'" he says. "At about that time our family ranch split up -- after my dad passed away -- and we ended up with a little chunk just not quite big enough to starve to death. So I decided to see if I could supplement our income with fossils."

Some in the scientific community have raised concerns over the private sale of dinosaur bones, but Phipps says it is an issue not just of his own financial health but also that of his community.

"I'm obviously trying to feed my family doing this. I've got a lot invested into this project, and it's an investment I made. [And also] my goal when I started doing this was to let landowners know that there was some value in their fossils," says Phipps. "I've watched people come to our county and take the fossils and give no credit to our area or anything. To me, I think the landowners ought to realize something from what's being taken off their place."

If the sale does go through, Phipps says he's not quite ready to hang up his fossil-hunting spurs.

"I enjoy it too much. I'm sure there's more out there in the hills," he says. "Good Lord willing, I'll find another one some day."

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

Clayton at the Dueling Dinos Excavation Site in 2006.

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C'mon Lizzie, how about species names! It's high school journalism 101 to ask questions and give descriptions, especially for a colorful piece that for once isn't droning about monetary policy or junk bonds. You start with a lead about childhood dreams, but any 8-year old proto-nerd could name you 20 binomial names right off the top of her head. A "carnivore and a herbivore"? "A dragon?"

I have never left an online comment regarding a news story; however, I am so disappointed in this interview, I had to say something. As Wes mentioned, while what he is doing is legal, it is not ethical. The one comment on how he "informs" private property owners of what's been taken off their land actually means, instead of encouraging individuals to donate specimens for science and access to the public, one should strive to make money instead. This guy's ignorance is amazing and that you provided him a platform is sickening. The next time Marketplace comes on, my radio will be turned off.

This is an incredibly irresponsible story. Yes, American property law privileges private land ownership to such an extreme degree that irreplaceable pieces of our collective past, like dinosaur bones, archaeological artifacts, and meteorites, can be bought and sold like common commodities. But the fact that this is legal does not make it ethical, and your gleeful reporting of Mr. Phipps' pillaging of fossils in Montana will surely encourage more reckless destruction of the record of the past. Well done, Marketplace. I guess it doesn't matter to your show how people make their money, so long as they get it.

What happened to science? Just digging up bones loses all the context.

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