Dinosaur Skeleton Returns to Mongolia

By Peninah Petruck

This May, a Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton, nearly complete, arrived home in Mongolia. This first ever cultural repatriation to Mongolia is the stuff of a film caper, including an arrest for international smuggling, possession of stolen property, and making false statements. See our original coverage in “Fossils Dealer Wants his Dinosaur Skeleton Back.”

The good guys are: Preet Bharara, the Southern District’s US Attorney, John Morton, the US Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) as well as Tsakhia Elbegdorfj, Mongloian President; the villain is Eric Prokopi, a Florida collector-dealer, now facing up to seventeen years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As part of a plea agreement, he consented to the forfeiture of the Bataar skeleton as well as other fossils (two other Bataars, and Sauroluphus and Ovriaptor skeletons). The Bataar is 70 million years old, but its recent travels began when paleontologists discovered it in the western Gobi Desert, somewhere between 1995 and 2005.

In March, 2010, Prokopi and his co-conspirators arranged for the skeleton to be imported to the US from Great Britain. Its import documentation contained several false statements as to its actual description, place of origin, and value. Before its scheduled sale by a Texas based auction house, a Texas district court granted the Mongolian government a Temporary Restraining Order, which prohibited the Bataar’s auction, sale or transfer. But the sale went through, (for over $1,000,000), contingent on the outcome of any court proceeding filed on behalf of the Mongolian government. 

In May, 2012, President Elbegdorfj requested that the Southern District’s US Attorney, file for a forfeiture of the Bataar, a “rare national treasure.” And in June, in response to the Attorney’s civil forfeiture action, the court issued a warrant to ICE to seize the skeleton. Finally, this February, Judge Kevin Castel entered a judgment for forfeiture of the skeleton and its return to Mongolia. And during a special ceremony (held near the United Nations in New York City) the US handed over the Bataar to the Monglian government, which plans to establish a museum to showcase the Bataar and other recently recovered fossils.

The original verified complaint seeking the Bataar’s forfeiture was filed under 18 U.S.C. § 45 and 981(a)(1)(c); and 19 U.S.C. §1595. 18 U.S.C. §545 states: “merchandise introduced into the United States in violation of this section…. shall be forfeited.” That complaint alleged claims for forfeiture, not only against Prokopi’s Bataar, but also for an Hadrosaur skeleton, offered for sale at the Chait Gallery; an Oviraptor matrix, recovered from a home in Gainesville, Florida; another Hadrosaur skeleton, recovered from a barn in O’Brien, Florida and; an Oviraptor, recovered from a residential dwelling in Archer, Florida. Included in the allegations were references to Mongolian law, its cultural heritage and its criminal laws, which prohibit personal ownership of items of cultural significance. Also the allegations established probable cause for issuing the warrant, stating that the Gobi desert is a “fertile source of dinosaur relics,” and that the fossils were stolen from Mongolia. The amended complaint cited paleontological reports which found unequivocally that the Bataar was from Mongolia. Prokopi and his fellow defendants chose not to answer the complaint.

Apparently, the investigative work of the ICE as well as the forfeiture unit of the US Attorney’s office was irrefutable. No wonder, President Elbegdorfj stated: “Our two countries are separated by many miles, but share a passion for justice and a commitment to putting an end to illegal smuggling.”

Sources: Press Release, May 6, 2013 S.D.N.Y.; Verified Complaint, 13 CV 0857; Verified Complaint, 12 CV 4760; “US Gives Dinosaur Back to Mongolia,” May 6, 2013, phys.org.

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