Dinosaur Skeleton Handed Back to Mongolia

An exhibit of a fearsome Tarbosaurus is due to be handed over to Mongolian officials today.  The end of a long legal battle to return fossils back to their country of origin.  The eight metre long skeleton was put up for sale at a New York auction house back in May 2012, it sold for approximately £630,000 GBP ($1,052,000 USD), but the sale was cancelled after a dispute arose regarding the legality of the sale.  Tarbosaurus (T. bataar), was a Late Cretaceous Theropod dinosaur, closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex. 

To read an article about the dispute which arose after the auction: U.S. Authorities Set to Seize Dinosaur Skeleton

Team members at Everything Dinosaur, once notified of the intended auction, mobilised and helped petition the U.S. authorities to investigate how such a specimen could be offered for sale, when in all likelihood the fossils had come from Mongolia, where it had been illegal to export such items out of that country for more than fifty years.  The Mongolian President even intervened to try to prevent the sale.  A long legal battle ensued and it resulted in the prosecution of Mr. Eric Prokopi of Gainesville Florida who had brought the fossilised bones into the United States and prepared them for sale.  As part of a guilty plea entered last year, Mr. Prokopi agreed to forfeit the Tarbosaurus auction specimen, a slightly smaller Tarbosaurus, two duck-billed dinosaur specimens and a pair of Oviraptors, which he confessed had been illegally imported into America.  Mr. Prokopi is awaiting sentencing, now rescheduled for August 30th, he could go to prison or face fines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Mounted Tarbosaurus Skeleton Offered for Sale and at the Centre of the Legal Case

The skeleton offered for sale at an auction in New York

The skeleton offered for sale at an auction in New York.

This landmark case demonstrates the determination which the U.S. authorities pursue instances of illegal fossil smuggling and the smuggling of other rare artefacts with the intention of making profits from any subsequent sales.  The federal investigation revealed, according to the filed complaint, that from April 2010 until August 2012, Mr. Prokopi and unnamed others conspired to “smuggle and clandestinely introduce” the bones through deliberately misleading and fraudulently labelled shipments with the ultimate aim of selling them for high profit.

To read an article on the legal battle: Dinosaur Smuggling Case – Florida Resident Pleads Guilty

Commenting on the legal case, John T. Morton, (Director of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement) stated:

“Think about it.  Here’s something that’s been in the ground for 70 million years.  This was the last of the great living dinosaurs right before extinction, roaming the plains of what is now Mongolia at the very end of the period of the dinosaurs.  And here you have looters and black marketeers exercising the level of arrogance that is unbelievable, that they’re going to engage in personal profit on something that has literally witnessed this span of time.  It is shocking.”

Mr. Morton went on to explain that the formal repatriation is set for 11am today, (Eastern Daylight Time), in the presence of officials from the Mongolian president’s office and culture ministry.

He added:

“We’re working with our foreign counterparts to protect heritage just as we would like them to protect our heritage. There’s an increasing awareness in the public and the art world that there’s a real cost-paying consequence to this kind of theft and black market sales.  No one benefits when people loot dinosaur bones or engage in grave robbing or defacing temples.  We need to take real steps to preserve these treasures around the world so that when you get to Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat is still there.”

Mr. Prokopi’s lawyer, Georges Lederman, said he had advised his client not to make any public statements before his sentencing, but he also said Mr. Prokopi was cooperating with the United States government “for a favourable outcome.”

It is believed that the fossils were sent to Florida by a fossil dealer based on the south coast of England.  At this time, Everything Dinosaur is not aware of any ongoing investigation into the UK’s connection with the importation of these rare fossils into the United States.

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