Rare Dinosaur To Be Returned To Mongolia After Illegal Sale
June 19, 2012

Rare Dinosaur To Be Returned To Mongolia After Illegal Sale

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com

A million-dollar rare dinosaur will likely be returned to its rightful owners after it had been brought into the US illegally and sold to an anonymous bidder at auction last month, according to the US government, which has filed a lawsuit to force return of the fossil to Mongolia.

The US lawsuit, filed in New York federal court, follows a restraining order placed on the sale of the dinosaur -- a Tyrannosaurus bataar (or Tarbosaurus) -- by Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, who claimed the fossil was removed from the Gobi Desert more than 10 years ago by looters.

President Elbegdorj said the T. bataar species was discovered in 1946 by a joint Soviet-Mongolian mission in the Gobi Desert. Somehow, a fossil of the species made its way into the US in 2010, via Great Britain, according to the US Attorney´s Office.

US Attorney Preet Bharara said the nearly complete fossil was falsely claimed to have originated in Great Britain, a claim that drew attention because T. bataar is only known from Mongolia. The value of the dinosaur had also been exaggerated, he noted.

“The Customs importation forms listed its value as $15,000, in contrast to the $950,000 - $1,500,000 price listed in a 2012 auction catalog, and the actual auction sale price of $1,052,500,” said Bharara.

President Elbegdorj obtained a restraining order in Texas before Heritage Auctions put the dinosaur fossil up for sale, but the auction house went ahead with the sale anyway, but did not transfer the skeleton, pending the lawsuit. The US Department of Justice on Monday filed a forfeiture complaint against Heritage allowing for the return of the fossil to Mongolia.

Under Mongolian law, dinosaur fossils are considered property of the Mongolian government under a 1942 antiquities law and are “one-of-a-kind rare items” prohibited from being moved abroad. Expert paleontologists from Canada had examined the fossil and determined that it did in fact come from the Gobi Desert sometime between 1995 and 2005.

The researchers said skeletons of this species “have only ever been recovered from the Nemegt basin and adjacent regions in Mongolia, which in our strong opinion indicates that specimen was collected in Mongolia.” They also argued that “the quality, color and fresh breaks on the bone indicate that the specimen was probably collected within the last ten years.”

“I thank and applaud the United States Attorney´s Office in this action to recover the Tyrannosaurus Bataar, an important piece of the cultural heritage of the Mongolian people,” said President Elbegdorj in a statement to Courthouse News on Monday. “Cultural looting and profiteering cannot be tolerated anywhere and this cooperation between our governments is a large step forward to stopping it.”

“When the skeleton was allegedly looted, a piece of the country´s natural history was stolen with it, and we look forward to returning it to its rightful place,” Bharara said.

The fossil will be returned to a region that is known for some of the richest collections of dinosaur fossils on the planet. The Gobi Desert is now an arid, cold plateau, but was wetter and warmer during the age of the dinosaurs, allowing for numerous species to thrive.