Now I know how a footballer feels to score at Wembley, and what it is like to appear on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. To my sheer disbelief, at an auction room just over a week ago, I achieved my lifelong ambition of more than half a century.
I couldn’t stop punching the air for joy and dancing around the room to the astonishment of onlookers.
Because I’d bought a dinosaur. The fossilised skeleton of a Psittacosaurus, a 120-million-year-old Parrot Lizard, no less.
It was quite simply one of the greatest moments of my life, an unbeatable feeling. Days later, I’m still on cloud nine.
My delight was magnified by the fact my successful bid was far less than I was prepared to pay. The catalogue estimate was £4,000 to £6,000, and I knew if it went above that, I was scuppered.
My wife knew how desperately I wanted to own this extraordinary relic, but she wasn’t going to let me remortgage the house. And I was pretty sure a flurry of bids from billionaire fossil collectors would push the price above £10,000 in seconds.
In fact, I was certain that a perfect specimen of Psittacosaurus was worth at least double that.
Author and historian Tom Holland celebrates like he’s won Wimbledon after fulfilling a childhood dream to own a dinosaur, pictured the fossil
Instead, the auctioneer started the bidding at £3,500 — and I was the only bidder. Can you blame me for pumping my fist like a Grand Slam tennis star and then leaping up to dance with delight?
The auctioneer said later that I was the happiest customer he’d ever seen. And yes, I probably was.
The whole scene was captured on CCTV at the auction house, Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury. While I’m leaping around, my father Martin can be seen sitting beside me with his arms calmly folded. It’s fair to say he’s always been a less demonstrative chap than me.
Now the skeleton has joined my family at our home. Because it’s a Parrot Lizard, so named because of its curved beak which evolved to help it shred the plants that were its staple food, my daughters and I have christened it Polly.
By the time the bidding began, my father and I had already inspected Polly in the auction house showroom. I knew it was in perfect condition, with the bones mounted in a glass-topped display box on a bed of sand, as if a paleontologist had just brushed aside a covering of earth.
The exhibit was owned by a private collector, who had bought it from a museum in Hungary, and before that it had been on display at a museum in New Zealand.
I first heard about its existence from my brother James, also a historian, who spotted it while browsing the Georgian furniture that made up the bulk of the Woolley & Wallis catalogue.
James knew how much I longed for a real, complete dinosaur skeleton. As a boy, my favourite birthday treat was to go to the Natural History Museum in London, where I would marvel at the Diplodocus in the main hall and the Plesiosaur fossils in display cases.
In school holidays, I loved nothing more than to scour the coastline around Lyme Regis in Dorset or on the Isle of Wight, hoping to uncover a spectacular fossil.
My historical heroine was Mary Anning, who first discovered an Ichthyosaurus skeleton in 1811 when she was 12 years old, thus helping to demolish the prevailing scientific theory that the Earth was barely 6,000 years old.
I found ammonites, the circular shell-like fossils that are so common on the south coast, but I didn’t manage to dig up any Ichthyosaurs. My long-suffering parents will tell you it wasn’t for the want of trying.
When I was a boy in the 1970s, far less was known about dinosaurs, and most books on the subject were aimed at small children or postgraduate experts.
As I entered my teens, my obsession waned — or rather, it was transferred to a new subject, the Roman Empire. Like dinosaurs, the Ancient Romans are glamorous, ferocious and extinct. Romans are the tyrannosaurs of antiquity, the apex predators, red in tooth and claw.
My first history book was a study of the end of the Roman Republic, the years leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar.
My fascination with that era is matched by the enthusiasm I had as a boy for dinosaurs. That childhood sense of wonder has been rekindled in recent years. We are living in a period of new discoveries, a golden age for dinosaur fans, when the fossilised remains of previously unknown species are identified almost weekly.
Computer animation enables digital artists to recreate these magnificent animals with extraordinary vividness and accuracy. The Apple TV+ series Prehistoric Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is so lifelike it’s easy to imagine we’re watching real wildlife documentary footage. And the internet has given me access to unlimited expert research. I follow plenty of the world’s most brilliant paleontologists on Twitter, and they are the most generous bunch, always willing to sacrifice their time to answer my eager questions.
Parrot-faced: How Tom’s Psittacosaurus dinosaur might have looked
Dinosaur hunting will always be a hobby for me, not a profession. I did record a show for Radio 4, an edition of From Our Own Correspondent, in which I visited the extraordinary Royal Tyrrell museum of palaeontology in Alberta, Canada.
There, I saw a dinosaur feather preserved in amber (yes, many were feathered, just like the birds which are their descendants).
Three complete tyrannosaur skeletons were on display, alongside a rock that revealed the exact moment in geological time an asteroid hit Earth, 66 million years ago, wiping out the non-avian dinosaurs.
I have also attended digs, including one in the wilds of Wyoming, U.S., where I saw a colossal sauropod’s leg being excavated on a stretch of desert known as Jurassic Mile. But I’ll never have the knowledge or the money to lead an archaeological expedition, more’s the pity.
My brother understood all this and urged me to try my luck at the auction house. When my father and I arrived, our hopes of success seemed slim — and got a lot slimmer on taking our seats. We were the only members of the public.
Having seen auctions on TV, I expected a crowded room of bidders waving papers and signalling their interest with winks and nods.
Instead, at a row of tables behind the empty chairs, staff sat at computer terminals with phone headsets, taking bids over the internet.
My heart sank. This could only mean that dino-devotees in Silicon Valley were dialling in, ready to transfer tens of thousands of pounds with the push of a button.
There were more than 50 lots to be sold before the Psittacosaurus came up, and my confidence ebbed with every one. A few other fossils were in the sale and I decided, in order to ensure that the afternoon was not a complete washout, to bid on one or two.
I was pleased to acquire the jawbone of a Mosasaur, if only because that is the giant marine reptile that leaps out of a pool in the 2015 movie Jurassic World and gobbles up a flying Pteranodon . . . and an unlucky theme park employee called Zara.
Another hundred quid secured me a fossil that was simply labelled ‘dinosaur bone’. These were prizes but they weren’t what I had come for.
One of the reasons I was so keen to buy the Psittacosaurus was its impeccable provenance. A disturbing trade has grown up in fossils, gouged out of the ground by unlicensed diggers who make no effort to preserve the site and cause immense damage to places of great scientific value.
The 54 year-old (pictured Tom Holland) went along with his father to the sale at Woolley & Wallis, of Salisbury, Wilts, to bid on a 97.5 to 119 million year-old Psittacosarus (parrot lizard) skeleton
This is akin to the illegal sale of antiquities from historic sites. I despise these destructive traders, who are no better than thieves.
My sights were set on an item that had been owned by at least two museums and so I was confident that it had been acquired in a responsible manner.
After an agony of waiting, lot 698 came up. It was described as ‘a Psittacosaurus skeleton, lower cretaceous period, 119 million to 97.5 million years BP’ — that is, Before the Present.
The description read: ‘A bird-like skull and beak mouth, mounted on a naturalistic desert sand setting, in a glazed hardwood case 85cm long.’
The catalogue added it was ‘notable for its bird-like appearance. Despite its small stature and lack of horns, it was part of the Ceratopsia group which included iconic dinosaurs such as Triceratops’.
My daughters, who have never shared my delight in dinosaurs, have fallen in love with Polly — though, of course, what really pleased them was the spectacle of me on CCTV, unable to control my excitement.
There is now a family stand-off over where Polly will be displayed. The girls want her on the wall in the kitchen where everyone can admire her.
But I think she’ll have to go in my study, where I can gaze at her as I work . . . and where no one can see me as I do my dinosaur victory dance every day.
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