Fossil Smuggler Receives Prison Sentence

Yesterday, fossil dealer Eric Prokopi was sentenced to three months in a federal prison, plus fifteen months of supervised release for entry of goods by means of false statements, conspiracy and interstate and foreign transportation of goods converted and taken by fraud.  What ended in a Manhattan court room, had begun back on May 20th 2012, in a New York auction house, when a mounted specimen of a fearsome meat-eating dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous was sold.  Everything Dinosaur reported on the sale of the almost complete fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaur known as Tarbosaurus bataar.  The specimen sold for over $1 million USD (£630,000 GBP), but even before the auctioneer brought down the gavel, suspicions had been raised as to the origins of the specimen.

Tarbosaurus, a close relative of the North American Tyrannosaurus rex is known from fossil material excavated from Upper Cretaceous aged sediments found in Mongolia.  Specifically, this predator’s fossil remains are associated with strata making up part of the Nemegt Formation.  It has been against the law in Mongolia to remove from the country fossils or any other artefacts regarded as culturally significant.   This law has been in effect for more than fifty years, it existed even before the formal scientific description and review of the fossilised bones and teeth that led to establishment of the Tarbosaurus genus.

To read more about the New York auction: Tyrannosaurid fossil up for auction

The mounted fossil was seized by U.S. custom and immigration officials and in May of last year, we reported on this specimen’s safe return to Mongolia, such had been the profile surrounding this Late Cretaceous dinosaur that even the President of Mongolia ( Elbegdorj Tsakhia), had become involved and lobbied for the fossil material to be returned back to the Asian country.

For an article about the return of the fossils: Handing a Dinosaur Over to Mongolian Officials

The prosecution had claimed that between 2010 and 2012, Mr Prokopi had acquired and subsequently smuggled into the United States a collection of fossilised dinosaur bones, including two specimens of Tarbosaurus bataar, the remains of two duck-billed dinosaurs belonging the the Saurolophus genus, one of which was subsequently sold at auction but confiscated by U.S. customs and the remains of two Oviraptors.  In addition, it was alleged that in 2010 false documentation was used to import from China the remains of a feathered dinosaur.

Mr Prokopi, who had admitted to a number of charges when he appeared in court in December of last year, learned his fate yesterday.  A self-styled “commercial palaeontologist”, referred to by prosecutors as a “one man black market in prehistoric fossils”, Mr Prokopi’s sentence will hopefully act as a deterrent to anyone considering or already engaged in fossil smuggling.

The Tarbosaurus Skeleton Offered for Auction in New York (May 2012)

Back in Mongolia.  The mounted skeleton offered for auction.

Back in Mongolia. The mounted skeleton offered for auction.

The defendant stated:

“I sincerely love fossils.  What I did was wrong and I failed to appreciate the gravity of what I have done.”

United States District Judge, Alvin Hellerstein commented that a prison term would send a message to others engaged in the field of commercial palaeontology.  With the high prices that dinosaur fossils fetch on the black market, no one knows for sure the extent of fossil smuggling activities.  However, it has long been suspected that criminal gangs are involved and that the practice of fossil thefts and illegal sales is actually widespread.

In a statement the Judge added:

“He [Eric Prokopi] is clearly not a bad person, but he has done a bad thing.”

The sentence handed down to Mr Prokopi, could have been far worse.  However, the fact that a lot of the fossil material was recovered and that the defendant co-operated with State officials helping with investigations into other suspected cases of fossil smuggling was taken into account when the punishment was decided.  There are currently a number of investigations on going in New York, Wyoming and California.

But what news of the other Tarbosaurus specimen.  Everything Dinosaur team members have been led to believe that this specimen was sold and has ended up in the United Kingdom, however, this fossil has yet to be recovered.  Police in the UK have so far been unable to locate the second Tarbosaurus specimen.  It too would belong to the people of Mongolia and if found it would most likely be confiscated and returned to Asia.

Mr Prokopi Leaving the Court Yesterday

Eric Prokopi photographed yesterday.

Eric Prokopi photographed yesterday.

Picture Credit: Reuters

Although the fossils procured by Mr Prokopi fetched high prices when they were sold, he has forfeited all the proceeds that resulted from the criminal activities.  He has also forfeited the fossilised skeletons and any other Mongolian fossil material that entered the United States between 2010 and 2012.

A spokes person for Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Hopefully, the extensive publicity that this case has attracted will deter fossil smugglers and fossil thieves.  Although, given the high prices that such material can make, it is very likely that the illegal sale of ancient artefacts is going to become an ever increasing problem.”

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