I'm not a big dinosaur guy, but yesterday's assignment for the Agence France-Presse to cover the attempted sale of the third-most-intact Tyrannosaurus Rex at a big natural artifacts auction put on by Bonhams & Butterfields at the Venetian was a surprisingly great deal of fun. The T. Rex, a female awkwardly named Samson, garnered a top bid of $3.6 million, but that wasn't enough so they didn't sell it.
Maybe it was the fact that it was my first assignment outing with my new iPhone since I've figured out the whole Twitter-Picture thing and so it was fun to show folks in real time via my Twitter feed images like this one of the cute kid vamping in front of the largest shark jaw ever found:
I met some colorful people. You think of expensive auction bidders as stuffy folks in suits or pantsuits probably representing some mysterious billionaire, but this guy...
...was just a rock musician named Damon Ranger of the Chicago-based band Blackbox who was considering buying something (but didn't) for the house in the $10k-$15k range.
This shlubby-looking fellow, however...
...is on the hook for about $1 million in total winning bids on a variety of items including the pair of tricertop-related dinosaurs behind him. He's Dr. Larry Lawson, 44, an oncologist from Big Lake, Alaska, quite near now-famous Wasilla. He claimed he's got a 501(c)3 non-profit called From The Vault that covers his collection of all sorts of dino-stuff because he opens it up to school groups, but he's got no website for it and I wasn't able to locate any such organization anywhere in the U.S., let alone Alaska, in the IRS's online database. Odd, that. At least this seems to confirm he's an oncologist.
Oh, and there was at least one mysterious billionaire, but he showed up in person with his wife:
That is, of course, Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam in the front row with the appropriately numbered paddle No. 770 went on to buy about $142,000 worth of stuff, including blowing $67,000 on this:
It's a large opalescent ammonite from the late cretaceous period found in southern Alberta, Canada. They lived 71 million years ago and that color is natural. (Photo credit: Dolce Dreams blog).
Adelson was quite friendly. In fact, his wife initially gave me a no-comment, but as we chatted some more Sheldon actually said, "It's OK, he's been good to us." Which is funny because some on his PR team don't feel so warm about me. The couple explained they would put some of the items in their home -- "we bought some tchotchkes for the house" -- and for the Adelson high school they fund.
He seemed to be in terrific spirits, actually, and walking a lot better than the last time I saw him in person in January 2008. I noted to him that his stock is back up a bit -- it was below $2 in March but closed Friday at $16.13 -- to which he replied, "It's only beginning to rise again." He expressed pleasure in the upswing they're seeing in Macau and referenced his coming Hong Kong IPO.
With the T. Rex unsold and available for about $5 million, I wondered why Adelson didn't buy it. He had seen first-hand how popular an exhibit it was when it drew 15,000 to view the free auction preview in the Guggenheim space. My Las Vegas Weekly editor, Ken Miller, had fantasized about Samson staying in Vegas in this week's issue, in fact, and while I don't think Ken's idea of standing it next to the Welcome sign is feasible, I sure do think that someone should take note of the immense popularity not just of the preview but also of Sue, the most intact T. Rex ever found, which has drawn mobs for going on 10 years at Chicago's Field Museum.
I quizzed Adelson on why he didn't buy it and he said, bafflingly, "It's huge, where would I put something that big?" Seeing how we were just a doorway from the immense Venetian's Grand Hall, I thought of a few places. Seemed to me that he could easily draw a million people to pay $5 each to see the thing somewhere at the Venetian or Palazzo to cover the cost of buying it. He's a billionaire, though, and I'm not, so I stifled myself.
I do find it strange that I was the only reporter to cover the Adelson angle here. The Las Vegas Sun didn't, the L.A. Times didn't and the Associated Press didn't mainly because they oddly covered the auction fron Reno owing to the fact that the Vegas bureau no longer has staff on the weekends. (The R-J ran the AP story which means the largest local paper ceded a significant scientific and economic event to the wires only to end up with something written from 450 miles away.)
It's not as though Adelson was difficult to spot...
Yet my favorite was the Huffington Post, which long has boasted the most consistently banal, obvious, cliched coverage of Vegas of any major site on the Web. Here's a screenshot of their little preview of the auction:
The text there reads: "Only in Vegas would they... auction off dinosaur bones?"
Well, no. There have been dinosaur bone and fossil auctions all over the world since man started finding the things. But someone thought this counts as clever writing.