Heritage Auctions is Being Sued by Mongolia -- Yes, the Country -- Over the Sale of a Dinosaur

My 3-year-old son is crushed. Yesterday, his dad was about $1,052,480 shy of purchasing a 75 percent complete fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, sold by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. Or at least I would have been had I put in a bid.

It's just as well, though, because whoever purchased the 70-million-year-old specimen has been thrust into an international legal and paleontological shit storm that played out dramatically during yesterday's auction.

It started late last week, when the director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, writing on behalf of Mongolia's president, called for the cancellation of Sunday's auction. The dinosaur, he wrote, actually belongs to his country.

From USA Today:

Based on our experience in the studying the collecting of Mongolian dinosaurs, and on the information provided by your company with other specimens to be auctioned this Sunday (May 20), we strongly suspect that the Tyrannosaurus specimen, as well as several others you intend to auction, came from Mongolia.

Mongolian law prohibits the export of fossil specimen did in fact come from Mongolia, we strongly urge you not to auction this speciment because it would then have been acquired and exported illegally.

Unmoved, Heritage went ahead and sold it to an anonymous bidder. Its president, Greg Rohan, told USA Today the specimens were brought to the States legally, though he declined to disclose exactly how or who the seller was.

Things hit the courts. Houston lawyer Robert Painter, acting on behalf of Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, filed a lawsuit in Dallas County on Saturday morning, and got Dallas County District Judge Carlos Cortez to issue a temporary restraining order against Heritage.

"Unfortunately this came to my attention after 5 o'clock on Friday," Painter said. "I put together the pleadings overnight," and tracked down Cortez at his home.

After making sure Heritage would be served, Painter flew to New York to attend the auction, of which he provides a brief play-by-play.

When the dinosaur came up for bidding, the auctioneer read a statement to the effect that the completion of the sale would be contingent on the outcome of court proceedings.

Painter objected, saying Cortez's order blocked the auction of the skeleton altogether. He called Cortez's cell phone and asked the judge to explain the order to Rohan, but the Heritage president refused to take the phone, Painter said.

A Heritage attorney ended up talking to the judge, according to Painter, but the auction was already over. Painter said he has never seen anyone ignore a court order while the judge who issued it was on the cell phone explaining what he meant.

A Heritage spokesman hasn't yet returned my phone call, but in the press release on its website announcing the sale, Heritage accuses Painter of unlawfully trying to interrupt the auction.

"We respect the various opinions on the subject and wish to protect the legal rights of all parties involved," Rohan said in the release. "We have legal assurances from our reputable consignors that the specimen was obtained legally. As far as we know, the Mongolian government has not produced any evidence that the piece originated in its territory, but the final determination will be up to the American legal system."

The legal battle will at least allow Mongolian officials to figure out where the Tyrannosaur came from. A hearing is scheduled for June 1 in Dallas County. Painter plans to ask the judge for a contempt of court ruling against Rohan and Heritage.

And just so you don't think Rohan Painter simply has an axe to grind against Heritage, he bought a watch, hewn from a meteorite, while he waited to block the dinosaur sale.

"In fact, I'm wearing it now," Painter said. "It's a nice watch."

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson