Steve Fiffer

Steve Fiffer

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 17 2000 9:30 PM

Steve Fiffer

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Michel Daous is a guy that I can relate to. According to a Reuters report that I read online this week, he's 53 (I'm 49), walks with a cane (me, too), and carries a business card that describes him as a "sexologist." OK, I can't relate to the last one. I don't have business cards.

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Daous is an instructor at the School of Seduction in Paris where, according to Reuters, he promises "to teach even the most timid men and homeliest women to approach the opposite sex with Casanova-like confidence." We all know the United States military's policy with respect to gay servicemen and women: Don't ask, don't tell. Well, Daous' philosophy with respect to seduction (presumably of the opposite or same sex) is:"If you don't ask, you don't get."

Today I'm particularly interested in one of his tips. (This interest it should be noted is purely intellectual; I am happily married … and my kids are reading every word I write here.) Daous' tip: "In France, the museums are terrific--you can immediately see if a woman is available in the way she looks at objects."

Well, it just so happens that I'm off to the museum in a little while. I've written a book about Sue, the largest (13 feet at the hip, 41 feet long), most complete (90 percent) Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. She's also the most expensive, having cost Chicago's Field Museum $8.36 million at auction in 1997. (Fortunately, the museum had financial support. Both McDonald's and Disney contributed to the kitty.)

Sue, who is 67 million years old, was found by field paleontologist Sue Hendrickson on a ranch belonging to Maurice Williams in Faith, S.D., in 1990. Hendrickson was part of a team of commercial fossil hunters from the highly respected Black Hills Institute for Geological Research. She insists that the dinosaur was calling to her across the badlands, asking to be discovered.

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After finding part of the skeleton, the institute paid Williams, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, $5,000 for the fossil. Excavation took 17 days. The institute had no intention of selling the dinosaur. It was to be the main attraction in a new museum in Hill City, S.D., 30 miles from Mount Rushmore.

For 18 months the institute prepared Sue for display and studied her bones. Then, in May of 1992, 35 federal agents--many with guns--descended on the institute and seized the dinosaur. The government claimed that the bones had been illegally removed from tribal lands. One hell of a custody battle ensued in civil court with the government, the institute, the Cheyenne River Sioux, and Williams all asserting ownership. Hendrickson and Pete Larson, who headed the team, were despondent over the loss.

Larson had spent thousands of hours studying the dinosaur, picturing her life in the Cretaceous Period, forwarding theories about her social habits as well as her anatomy. The T. rex, he said, had come to speak to him over the months they spent together. This was a classic love story: Boy meets dinosaur, falls in love, loses her, fights to get her back.

The courts eventually determined that Williams was the rightful owner. To make matters worse, the government brought criminal charges against Larson (to the delight of some academics jealous of the for-profit institute's remarkable success in finding dinosaurs and other fossils). Larson was cleared of all felony charges relating to fossil collecting, but convicted for failing to declare $31,700 in traveler's checks brought into the United States. Remarkably, this first-time offender was sentenced to two years in prison and served 18 months.

Williams put Sue up for auction at Sotheby's. The victorious Field Museum has been studying and reconstructing the dinosaur behind closed doors for the past two and a half years. Today, she will be unveiled with much hoopla. Media from around the world are in town to cover the event. The museum calls her the "Hope diamond of fossils" and hopes that she will attract visitors just as that gem draws crowds to the Smithsonian.

I have been following the story for eight years—ever since the FBI raided the institute. I have seen various parts of Sue at the museum as preparators cleaned and repaired them with mini-jackhammers, scalpels, paintbrushes, and super glue. I've seen artist's renditions of what she will look like in her full, reconstructed splendor. Still, I can't wait to see her in the flesh, er, the bones.

My gaze will certainly be fixed on the curtain as it drops to reveal this remarkable creature. But then I will turn to watch Pete Larson and Sue Hendrickson. How will they react upon seeing the dinosaur who spoke to each of them? I'm not sure. But I'm certain it will be clear that at that moment neither of them is, in Monsieur Daous' words, "available." Seduced by a mystical Tyrannosaurus rex, they will only have eyes for Sue.