Judge Orders Dinosaur Back to Mongolia

First, it was the president of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, who cried foul when Dallas' own Heritage Auctions auctioned off a rare Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton for a bit over $1 million. Said that there was no way the specimen could have come from anywhere but Mongolia and that, since there are laws prohibiting trafficking in such things, said skeleton should be repatriated.

Things were headed for a nasty legal showdown when there was a detente of sorts, and both sides put aside their differences and agreed to work together to figure out if the dinosaur was, in fact, Mongolian. It was. But as Heritage co-chair Jim Halperin told me beforehand, that in itself didn't mean much. There is the question of the value added by the specimen's current owner through identification and restoration, for example. And, with a chain of custody dating back only to about 2005, no one can know exactly how or when the skeleton was removed. So even with a definitive answer on the dinosaur's provenance, the T. bataar wasn't going to be put on a plane to Ulan Bataar any time soon.

That's exactly what should happen, according to a civil complaint filed Monday in New York by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Says the skeleton was "looted" from the Gobi Desert, that when it was imported into the United States from Great Britain in 2010, the country of origin was inaccurate and the dinosaur's value was put at $15,000, about an eighth of its actual value. And yesterday, a federal judge signed a warrant for the government to seize the T. bataar.

I called Halperin this morning to see what would happen. The company's not saying much, he told me, and sent along a couple of press statements.

There was this, in response to the lawsuit:

We auctioned the Tyrannosaurus bataar conditionally, subject to future Court rulings, so this matter is now in the hands of lawyers and politicians. We believe our consignor purchased fossils in good faith, then spent a year of his life and considerable expense identifying, restoring, mounting and preparing what had previously been a much less valuable matrix of unassembled, underlying bones.

And this in response to the judge's order:

We have cooperated in the investigation process for paleontologists to expeditiously examine the skeleton, and we will continue to cooperate with authorities in an ongoing effort to reach a fair and just resolution to this matter.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson