Now I know how a footballer feels when they score at Wembley and what it’s like to perform on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. To my sheer disbelief, I achieved my lifelong ambition of more than half a century at an auction house just over a week ago.
I couldn’t stop banging in the air and dancing around the room to the amazement of the audience.
Because I bought a dinosaur. No less than the fossilized skeleton of a psittacosaurus, a 120-million-year-old parrot lizard.
It was just one of the greatest moments of my life, an unbeatable feeling. Days later I’m still on cloud nine.
My joy was heightened by the fact that my winning bid was well below what I was willing to pay. The catalog estimate was £4,000 to £6,000 and I knew if it went beyond that I was screwed.
My wife knew how badly I wanted to own this extraordinary relic, but she wouldn’t let me reschedule the house. And I was pretty sure that a flurry of bids from billionaire fossil collectors would send the price to over £10,000 in a matter of seconds.
In fact, I was certain that a perfect Psittacosaurus specimen would be worth at least double that.
Author and historian Tom Holland is celebrating like he’s won Wimbledon after fulfilling a childhood dream of owning a dinosaur, fossil reveals
Instead, the auctioneer started bidding at £3,500 – and I was the only bidder. Can you blame me for clenching my fists like a Grand Slam tennis star and then jumping up to dance for joy?
The auctioneer later said I was the happiest customer he had ever seen. And yes, I probably was.
The whole scene was captured on CCTV at Woolley & Wallis auction house in Salisbury. As I jump around, my father Martin sits next to me with his arms calmly folded. It’s fair to say he’s always been a less demonstrative guy than I am.
Now the skeleton has joined my family in our house. Because it’s a parrot lizard that got its name from its curved beak, which evolved to help it shred the plants that were its main food, my daughters and I christened it Polly.
When the bidding started, my father and I had already inspected Polly in the auction house’s showroom. I knew it was in perfect condition, with the bones mounted in a glass-topped display case on a bed of sand, as if a paleontologist had just pushed aside a layer of soil.
The exhibit belonged to a private collector who bought it from a museum in Hungary and had previously been displayed in a museum in New Zealand.
I first heard of its existence from my brother James, also a historian, who discovered it while browsing through the Georgian furniture that made up the bulk of the Woolley & Wallis catalogue.
James knew how badly I craved a real, complete dinosaur skeleton. As a boy my favorite place to go was the Natural History Museum in London, where I admired the Diplodocus in the main hall and the plesiosaur fossils in display cases.
During the school holidays I loved nothing more than to scour the shores around Lyme Regis in Dorset or on the Isle of Wight in the hope of uncovering a spectacular fossil.
My historical heroine was Mary Anning, who discovered an ichthyosaurus skeleton for the first time in 1811 at the age of 12, thereby helping to disprove the prevailing scientific theory that the earth was barely 6,000 years old.
I’ve found ammonites, the circular shell-like fossils so common on the south coast, but haven’t been able to dig up any ichthyosaurs. My long-suffering parents will tell you it wasn’t because I didn’t try.
Much less was known about dinosaurs when I was a boy in the 1970s, and most books on the subject were aimed at young children or postgraduate experts.
As I entered my teens, my obsession eased – or rather, transferred to a new subject, the Roman Empire. Like dinosaurs, the ancient Romans are glamorous, wild, and extinct. The Romans are the tyrannosaurs of antiquity, the apex predators, red on teeth and claws.
My first history book was a study of the end of the Roman Republic, the years before the assassination of Julius Caesar.
My fascination with this period matches the enthusiasm I had for dinosaurs as a boy. This childlike wonder has been reignited in recent years. We live in a time of new discoveries, a golden age for dinosaur fans, when the fossilized remains of previously unknown species are identified almost weekly.
Computer animation enables digital artists to recreate these magnificent animals with exceptional vibrancy and accuracy. The Apple TV+ series Prehistoric Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is so lifelike that it’s easy to imagine we’re watching real wildlife documentaries. And the internet has given me access to unlimited expert research. I follow many of the world’s most brilliant paleontologists on Twitter, and they are the most generous bunch, always willing to give up their time to answer my eager questions.
Parrot Face: This is what Tom’s Psittacosaurus dinosaur would have looked like
Hunting dinosaurs will always be a hobby for me, not a job. I recorded a program for Radio 4, an issue of From Our Own Correspondent, in which I visited the extraordinary Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta, Canada.
There I saw a dinosaur feather preserved in amber (yes, many were feathered, just like the birds that are their descendants).
Three complete tyrannosaur skeletons were seen next to a rock, revealing the exact point in geologic time when an asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out the non-bird dinosaurs.
I’ve also participated in excavations, including one in the wilderness of Wyoming, USA, where I saw the leg of a colossal sauropod being unearthed in a stretch of desert known as the Jurassic Mile. But I will never have the knowledge or the money to lead an archaeological expedition, much more so.
My brother understood all of 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 became much slimmer as we took our seats. We were the only members of the public.
After watching auctions on TV, I expected a crowded room with bidders waving papers and signaling their interest with winks and nods.
Instead, employees sat at a row of tables behind the empty chairs at computer terminals with telephone headsets and took bids over the Internet.
My heart sank. It could only mean Dino fans in Silicon Valley were dialing in, ready to transfer tens of thousands of pounds with the click of a button.
There were more than 50 lots for sale before the Psittacosaurus showed up, and my confidence dwindled with each lot. A few other fossils were on sale and I decided to bid on one or two to make sure the afternoon wasn’t completely washed out.
I was delighted to acquire a mosasaur jawbone, if only because that’s the giant marine reptile that leaps out of a pool and devours a flying pteranodon in the 2015 film Jurassic World. . . and an unfortunate amusement park employee named Zara.
Another hundred pounds secured me a fossil simply referred to as “dinosaur bones”. Those were awards, but not what I came for.
One of the reasons I was so keen to buy the Psittacosaurus was its impeccable heritage. A disturbing trade has developed in fossils dug from the ground by unlicensed diggers who make no effort to preserve the site, causing immense damage to sites of great scientific value.
The 54-year-old (pictured Tom Holland) took his father to the auction at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury, Wilts, to bid on a 97.5-119 million year old Psittacosarus (parrot lizard) skeleton
This is similar to the illegal sale of antiques from historic sites. I despise those destructive traders who are no better than thieves.
I had my sights set on an object that had been owned by at least two museums, so I was confident it had been acquired responsibly.
After a long wait, lot 698 appeared. It has been described as “a Psittacosaurus skeleton, Lower Cretaceous, 119 million to 97.5 million years BP” – that is, before the present.
The description read: “A bird-like skull and beaked mouth mounted on a naturalistic desert sand setting, in a glazed hardwood case 85 cm long.”
The catalog added it was “remarkable for its bird-like appearance. Despite its small stature and lack of horns, it was part of the Ceratopsia group, which included iconic dinosaurs like Triceratops.
My daughters, who have never shared my love of dinosaurs, fell in love with Polly – although of course they were genuinely delighted by the way I was on CCTV and couldn’t contain my excitement.
There is now a family dispute over where Polly will be exhibited. The girls want them on the wall in the kitchen where everyone can admire them.
But I think she needs to go to my study where I can watch her work. . . and where nobody can see me when I do my dinosaur victory dance every day.