NEW YORK – Controversy. Legal proceedings. Heartbreak. These are not the terms that usually come to mind when one thinks about a Tyrannosaurus rex, or any dinosaur for that matter. But such was the case with Peter Larson and his paleontology team from the Black Hills Institute when they found Dinosaur 13, the thirteenth T. rex skeleton to be collected at the time. Affectionately known as Dinosaur Sue, named after Susan Hendrickson, the paleontologist from the Black Hills team who first encountered the skeleton, the find made history – Sue is now acknowledged as the largest, most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world.

Susan Hendrickson in Dinosaur 13. Courtesy of Lionsgate Films.

In 1990, when the find was made, Peter, his brother Neal Larson and the rest of his team knew that they had struck gold – this was clearly the find of a lifetime. The team quickly got to work in preparing the dinosaur; they had dreamt of opening a dinosaur museum in their hometown of Hill City, South Dakota. The discovery was truly a community affair and a point of pride for the small midwestern town. The offices and labs of the Black Hills Institute were kept open to the public at large, so that children and scientists alike could watch the progress unfold. In May 1992, after successfully separating the dinosaur’s pelvis from the skull, a risky, one-shot operation that could have fractured many bones, the team felt “on top of the world.” Terry Wentz, the chief preparator for Sue, even said that it was “the highest point of [his] life.”

Peter Larson, Susan Hendrickson and team in Dinosaur 13. Courtesy of Lionsgate Films.

The Black Hills Institute team had been working on Sue for two painstaking years when they got a knock on the door. It was the FBI.

The joys of the amazing discovery as well as the federal seizure of Sue and the following legal proceedings are documented in Todd Miller’s new film, Dinosaur 13, which recounts the struggles, controversies and legal battles of the Larsons and their team from the Black Hills Institute. This inspiring documentary-cum-thriller has garnered praise at international film festivals like Sundance and AFI DOCS, as well as the Sydney, Melbourne and Traverse City Film Festivals. The film even showed at the Black Hills Film Festival, the Larsons’s hometown.

For Sotheby’s Vice Chairman David Redden, Sue was far more than just a great American treasure to be catalogued and sold to the highest bidder – she represented a major scientific discovery that required years of scholarly study. Sue needed a home in a great American institution. So David created an auction scenario with special priority being given to scientific institutions. Sue was transported 1,800 miles to New York City, where she was studied for about a year before the sale. Paleontologists and other scientists were invited to visit Sue in New York, and specialised exhibitions designers were consulted on how to best display Sue in the days leading up to the auction. Many of the Black Hills Institute team came to New York including Susan Hendrickson, Terry Wentz and Kristin Donnan. 

Dinosaur Sue, photographed at Sotheby’s in 1997.

On 4 October 1997, bidding opened at $500,000. After six and a half minutes of bidding, Sue was sold for a total price of $8.36 million, a record for the largest amount ever paid for a fossil. Despite fears that the dinosaur would be sold to a private collector or foreign museum with the possibility of never being seen again, Dinosaur Sue was sold to the Field Museum in Chicago, with support from McDonald’s and the Walt Disney Company, among others.

Dinosaur Sue in Stanley Field Hall in Chicago © The Field Museum

It took over two years of preparations at the Field Museum, where a custom-made, state of the art preparation laboratory was created. Besides Sue’s skull, all of the bones on display are her actual bones; the skull weighs over 600 pounds and is therefore too heavy to be displayed with the rest of the skeleton. Instead, the skull is housed in a separate exhibition in the museum. Although Peter was heartbroken about being separated from Sue, he agreed that the Field Museum would be a suitable home for the dinosaur, where scientists and the public alike can visit her. Both the Field Museum and Todd Miller’s documentary have given life back to a 65 million-year-old dinosaur named Sue.

Head out to see the incredible true story on film, which opens this Friday 15 August in select theatres nationwide.