Tag Archives: tyrannosaurus bataar

Smuggled Tyrannosaur case finally solved – Florida paleontologist charged with smuggling

Remember when, back in May, we told you about a case with a dinosaur skeleton transferred from Mongolia to the US, then auctioned, despite a judge declaring the act illegal? Well… good news!

A man from the state of Florida gave an entirely new meaning to ‘grave robbing’ after being lured to the dark side of paleontology – he was caught smuggling dinosaur bones from Mongolia to the United States; the dinosaur was a Tyrannosaurus Bataar, a “cousin” of the famed T-Rex. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents arrested Eric Prokopi, 38, charging him with multiple crimes, all related to fossil smuggling. Prokopi auctioned the dinosaur skeleton for over $1 million, despite Mongolian laws clearly stating that fossils cannot be removed from the country, let alone sold for personal profit. A Mongolian citizen took a picture of Prokopi physically pulling the bones out of the ground in the Gobi Desert, and even the Mongolian president was very outspoken about this incident, which could have created an extremely dangerous precedent.

The good news is that the US authorities were pretty prompt to react to this situation and seized the skeleton in June – which led to a dire discovery: the Tyrannosaurus Bataar was only the tip of the iceberg, as Prokopi had numerous smuggled dinosaur fossils. As authorities put it, he was practically a “one-man black market” for dinosaur smuggling.

“We want to make this illegal business practice extinct in the U.S.,” said James Hayes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). “This fossil is a symbol of the rich cultural heritage of the Mongolian people. HSI will preserve the fossil and return it to its rightful owner.”

I remember receiving over a dozen emails when I wrote about this back in May, and I was excited to see so many people interested. Well, I’m really happy to say that it all went the right way, and the case is practically solved.

Yep, it’s settled: Sold Tyrannosaurus definitely belongs in Mongolia

Remember about the auctioned Tyrannosaurus Bataar, taken out of Mongolia? Even though a court from Texas declared the auction illegal, the sale proceeded in New York, and unofficial, national court order has not been issued yet. However, that may change following the analysis of an international paleontologists team.

“We have pulled a lot of them out of the ground and seen a lot of others come out of the ground, and in our professional opinion it is from Mongolia,” said Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History who began working in the Central Asian country in 1990.

Norell and fellow investigator Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, announced their findings and were immediately seconded by Mongolian paleontologists. It is still not exactly clear how this will affect the sale itself, but it will definitely weigh greatly in the decision.

“I have no doubt that the Tarbasaurus bataar will be returned to Mongolia,” said Puntsag Tsagaan, senior adviser to Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, following the investigators’ conclusions.

The return of the 75 percent skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar, the Asian relative of the better-known T-Rex would be a sign of good relations between the US and Mongolia, but perhaps even more important, it would send out a strong message to the “bad guys, those who illegally excavate fossils and sell them on the black market,” Tsagaan said.

Heritage Auctions, which handled the sale, has cooperated with the Mongolian investigation but haven’t yet reacted to the findings. Jim Halperin, co-chairman and co-founder of Heritage Auctions, stated:

“It would be premature for us to comment on a paleontological opinion we have neither seen nor had time to study. “Heritage will continue to assist the ongoing efforts to achieve a fair and amicable resolution,” he added.

Aside from Mongolians and paleontologists directly involved, numerous other scientists are following the events.

“I think it’s good for this case to come up because one of the things that happens, a lot of fossils are being brought into this country and sold in this country and there is not too much awareness of fossil collecting laws in other countries,” said Kirk Johnson, chief curator and vice president for research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “Mongolia owns all its fossils, not like the U.S.,” where people can dig up fossils on their private land and own them.

Tyrannosaurus skeleton auctioned, despite controversy and court order

I’ve studied geology for four years – and I still haven’t had the chance to see a T-Rex skeleton; this is just one of the reasons why I believe such valuable fossils belong in museums, where they could serve the higher purpose of education, and not in some personal collection, where they serve only the vanity of the rich – especially when it comes to such a rare specimen.

The rare Tyrannosaurus Bataar, seven metres long (23ft), was bought by an anonymous bidder for more than $1m (£630,000) in New York. The sale went on, despite vehement protests from the Mongolian president, who claims the dinosaur, which was found in Mongolia was exported illegally, and perhaps even more important, despite a court order released by a Texas judge which declared the auction illegal.

Robert Painter, the attorney who obtained the court order, stood up at the beginning of the auction with the Texas judge on his cell phone and noted the restraining order; almost everybody was shocked as, despite this turn of events, the attorney was asked to leave and the sale proceeded.

“I am very surprised that Heritage Auctions, Inc. knowingly defied a valid court order, particularly with the judge on the phone, listening and ready to explain his order,” Painter says, in a statement.

We will keep you posted as events continue to unfold.