October 19, 2012
For the past six months, the fate of a million-dollar tyrannosaur has been in limbo. A composite Tarbosaurus skeleton has been awaiting the outcome of an ongoing court trial–will the dinosaur bones go home to Mongolia or wind up in the hands of the private collector who successfully bid for the dinosaur?
At every step, the case has become more complex. What was thought to be a single, mostly complete dinosaur turned out to be a jumble of many, and the documents used to import the fossils to the United States hint that these dinosaurs were indeed smuggled out of Mongolia. Earlier this week, federal officials arrested the man who imported and assembled the contentious skeleton.
According to reports by the Guardian and LiveScience, commercial fossil dealer Eric Prokopi was involved in many shady schemes. In addition to the disputed Tarbosaurus, documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office charge Prokopi with trying to smuggle a specimen of the small, feathery dinosaur Microraptor out of China, illegally selling an illicit specimen of the hadrosaur Saurolophus to auction house I.M. Chait and the sale of two other dinosaurs illegally collected from Mongolia. The charges against Prokopi include conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, making false statements and interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods.
From the very beginning, the Mongolian Government, paleontologists and U.S. officials have been skeptical about how a “mostly complete” Tarbosaurus–a tyrannosaur primarily found in Mongolia–could have been secretly exported from a country with a strict commitment to responsible collection and research. But experts also knew that this dinosaur was only one visible point of a massive black market that continues to rob nations of their natural history heritage. Indeed, the new charges assert that the Tarbosaurus was not the first illegal specimen Prokopi tried to sell, and the Florida fossil dealer is hardly unique. How many dinosaurs have been lost in private collections because of unscrupulous commercial paleontologists? With any luck, though, this case may help the United States tighten the laws surrounding fossil sales. We should not only strive to protect fossils at home but to work with other countries to preserve the global story of dinosaurs.
September 25, 2012
Since May, Mongolian officials, a fossil dealer, federal agents and paleontologists have been tussling over a million-dollar dinosaur. And the story of this Tarbosaurus keeps getting more complicated.
When the tyrant was sold by Heritage Auctions, the dinosaur was advertised as being about 75 percent complete. But, according to a court hearing earlier this month, only about fifty percent of the reconstruction came from a single animal. The rest apparently came from any number of other dinosaurs. Eric Prokopi–the dealer who imported, mounted and tried to sell the dinosaur–has not provided any information about where all these fossils came from.
To date, Tarbosaurus skeletons have only been discovered in Mongolia. The color and preservation of the bones of the specimen in question indicates that the primary individual used to make the reconstruction came from that country. But the admission that the dinosaur is an amalgamation of several dinosaurs–all of undocumented origin–complicates the Mongolian government’s claim to the dinosaur. Who knows what kind of monster Prokopi created in his effort to create a salable specimen?
And the lack of paperwork has further marred the case. Upon hearing that experts believe that the Tarbosaurus at the center of the mount could only have come from Mongolia, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel offered his opinion that the dinosaur could have been found outside Mongolia simply because “We’re finding new things all the time.” It would seem that Castel fancies himself an amateur paleontologist.
This ever-more frustrating case highlights the problematic nature of the fossil black market. All too easily, fossils are poached and shipped around the world without documentation. Should they ever become the subject of an attempt to send the fossils back home, as in this case, the shady dealings of irresponsible commercial dealers hinders attempts to figure out where the fossils came from, much less return a country’s natural heritage.
No one knows what might happen next. The fact that the Tarbosaurus was a “Frankenstein” of many dinosaurs complicates the case, yet the bulk of the evidence indicates that the core of the mount–the 50 percent from a single Tarbosaurus individual–is an illicit specimen that was smuggled into the United States. For now, though, all we can do is wait. The case is set to resume in December.
August 9, 2012
The road home for an illicit Tarbosaurus is bound to be a long one. Earlier this summer, federal agents seized a skeleton of the tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus that had been put up for auction in New York City. The sale price for the dinosaur topped $1 million, but, as was long suspected and was soon made clear, the dinosaur was illegally smuggled into the United States. Even worse, the skeleton itself was almost certainly illegally excavated from Mongolia and subsequently smuggled out of the country. Mongolian officials, professional paleontologists, lawyers, and United States officials moved quickly to prevent the dinosaur from disappearing into the collection of the tyrannosaur’s prospective buyer.
I see these events as a victory. The fossil black market has robbed many countries of their natural history heritage, especially Mongolia and China, and I was glad to see so many concerned activists work together in the hope that the Tarbosaurus might be returned. As expert paleontologists have concluded, the Tarbosaurus undoubtedly came from Mongolia–a country with strict heritage laws about who can collect fossils, what can be collected, and what subsequently happens to the fossils. All the evidence accumulated so far supports to idea that the Tarbosaurus was looted from Mongolia. But the man who assembled the controversial Tarbosaurus doesn’t agree, and has filed a claim on the dinosaur. Eric Prokopi, who obtained the Tarbosaurus and stood to profit from the auction, believes that the dinosaur is rightly his.
As reported by Wynne Parry at LiveScience, Prokopi and his attorney are trying to defend the sale of the Tarbosaurus by drawing a distinction between raw fossils and the reconstructed end product. “We are just trying to create a factual distinction between a fossil which is imported and a finished piece which is what was being sold at the auction,” Prokopi’s attorney Michael McCullough said.
But this strategy entirely misses the point. Prokopi obviously put a great deal of time, money, and effort into the tyrannosaur skeleton, but that does not change the fact that the skeleton was almost certainly illegally excavated and, as customs documents demonstrate, smuggled into the United States through a false description. How hard Prokopi worked is absolutely irrelevant. And, frankly, Prokopi should have known better than to put so much effort into a significant dinosaur specimen when he admittedly had no idea where the specimen came from or how it was collected. The bottom line is quite simple–the Tarbosaurus was illegally removed from its home strata, and it should be returned to its country of origin of soon as possible.