Back in May, Houston attorney Robert Painter got a panicked dispatch from the president of Mongolia: A 70 million-year-old Tyranosaurus bataar skeleton that had been illegally smuggled from the country was about to hit the auction block, and the sale must be stopped.
Painter leaped into action. He rushed to Dallas late on a Friday, where he filed a lawsuit against Heritage Auctions then tracked down a district judge at his home and persuaded him to issue a temporary restraining order halting the sale. Painter then flew to New York where he stood in the auction house and demanded the auction be stopped.
He, and the TRO, were ignored. The skeleton went for $1.05 million.
(Update at 10:12 p.m.: Heritage Auctions president Greg Rohan called to point out that Painter and the TRO weren't ignored. After Heritage learned of the TRO -- which "comes from out of nowhere" -- the auctioneer declared that the sale would be conditional upon resolution of litigation. The auction had been advertised worldwide for several weeks with no objection and Heritage had a duty to the consignor, who had a long track record and had given a sworn statement that the fossils were obtained legitimately, and so couldn't simply be called off. Heritage didn't know at the time that the consignor was, in Rohan's words, "a colossal liar." Rohan also notes that Heritage kept the T. bataar under lock and key until it was ultimately turned over to the government. Bottom line, he said, is that his company cooperated fully during the process.)
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But that was only the beginning of one of the year's more interesting custody battles. Not long after the auction, the U.S. Department of Justice entered the fray, filing a civil lawsuit claiming that the fossil's seller, an amateur paleontologist from Florida named Eric Prokopi, had broken Mongolian and U.S. law by importing the specimen.
Prokopi denied those claims and asserted that "Ty," the exceedingly clever name he had given the dino, had been obtained and brought here legally. After being arrested and hit with multiple felony charges in October, he changed his tune. He pleaded guilty yesterday to three felony counts: conspiracy; making false statements to customs; and the interstate and foreign transportation of goods converted and taken by fraud.
As part of the deal, Prokopi agreed to give up a good deal of his fossil collection. Turns out, he had also illegally imported a second T. bataar skeleton, two saurolophuses (duck-billed plant eater of the late Cretaceous), and two oviraptors (raptors with parrot-like skulls, from the same time period) that he agreed to hand over to the government.
Prokopi's sentencing is scheduled for April 25. He faces a maximum 17 years in prison and $750,000 fine. He'll probably also need to find another line of work, since it seems that commercial fossil hunting will no longer be a profitable option.