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.
June 19, 2012
A million dollar dinosaur may soon be going home.
Last month, Heritage Auctions offered a mostly complete, reconstructed skeleton of the tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus for sale. This was despite protests from the Mongolian government and paleontologists that the specimen was illegally collected from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. The country has very strict regulations involving the collection and curation of dinosaurs, and the very fact that the tyrannosaur was taken from Mongolia and put up for sale was a sure sign that it was an illicit specimen. The auction house went along with the sale anyway—where the top bid was a little over one million dollars—but a last-minute restraining order gave Mongolian officials and paleontologists a little more time to investigate the dinosaur.
There could be no doubt about where the dinosaur came from. This Tarbosaurus was collected from Mongolia just a few years ago, in violation of Mongolia’s laws. Frustratingly, however, Heritage Auctions maintained that the specimen had been legally imported to the United States. If this were the case, the skeleton could still be legally sold—even if a specimen is illegally collected from its country of origin, lax importation regulations give dinosaur smugglers legal loopholes.
But the history of this Tarbosaurus may provide the key to sending the dinosaur back to the people of Mongolia. Yesterday, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a press release which revealed that the dinosaur was not only collected illegally, but also illegally smuggled into the country.
The paperwork for the Tarbosaurus, which was imported to the United States from England on March 27, 2010, contained several untruths. Despite being excavated in Mongolia, the fossils in the shipment were said to have come from Great Britain. Not that the documents actually said the shipment contained a tyrannosaur. According to the press release, the customs forms only listed “two large rough fossil reptile heads, six boxes of broken fossil bones, three rough fossil reptiles, one fossil lizard, three rough fossil reptiles, and one fossil reptile skull.” It’s not as if the people who possessed the skeleton didn’t realize what they had. According to a report by the Daily Mail, the Tarbosaurus was knowingly shipped to the United States so that the skeleton could be completely assembled.
Official documents named Eric Prokopi as the consignee of the imported fossils. Prokopi, a self-styled commercial paleontologist, runs Florida Fossils and owned the tyrannosaur at the time it was brought into the country. After the dinosaur was prepared in Florida, it was shipped to Texas and then New York for auction.
If you wish to see all the legal files yourself, paleontologist Chris Noto is hosting them on his website. This may be the action that sends the Tarbosaurus home. And Heritage Auctions is stepping aside from the skeleton, shrugging off the blame for auctioning an illegal specimen by saying the company believes the consignor acted in “good faith.” That is demonstrably not the case. The dinosaur was looted, smuggled and would probably be on its way to a private collector’s home—locked away from everyone else—had the Mongolian government and paleontologists not complained about the sale.
I hope the Tarbosaurus will soon be on its way back to Mongolia. But as paleontologist Phil Currie notes in a New Scientist opinion piece, this won’t be the last illegal or illicit dinosaur that comes up for sale. There will undoubtedly be others, but with luck, this case will turn the tide against the wave of poaching that continues to pillage the natural heritage of Mongolia. And that country’s loss is everyone’s loss—stolen dinosaurs are often hastily excavated and disappear into the black market, robbing paleontologists of significant specimens. This makes it that much harder to understand how these animals actually lived, or to bring dinosaurs back to life for the public. Too many dinosaurs have been lost to private owners looking for just another symbol of their affluence. Dinosaurs belong to everyone.