The U.S. is seeking to return a Tyrannosaurus bataar to Mongolia after officials there said the dinosaur bones were smuggled into the U.S.
The skeleton, which spans 24 feet in length and is eight feet tall, had been shipped to the U.S. from the U.K. via Florida and then to Texas before arriving in New York in 2010. It was auctioned by Texas-based Heritage Auctions Inc. in New York in May for more than $1 million.
The auction proceeded even though the president of Mongolia obtained a restraining order in a Texas court before it took place. Under Mongolian law, dinosaur fossils are considered property of the Mongolian government and “one-of-a-kind rare items” that are prohibited from being moved abroad.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan said the bones, discovered sometime between 1995 and 2005, were looted from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
“The skeletal remains of this dinosaur are of tremendous cultural and historic significance to the people of Mongolia,” Bharara said in a statement. “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 alleges the customs documents for the dinosaur misstated the bones’ country of origin as Great Britain instead of Mongolia. The government’s paleontologists concluded the skeleton must have come from Mongolia because the dinosaur was native to that region and its bones have only been discovered there.
The Tyrannosaurus bataar, which lived about 70 million years ago, was first discovered by paleontologists in 1946, Bharara’s office said. Since 1924, Mongolia enacted laws making any dinosaurs discovered there to be government property.
The complaint also alleges the bones were priced too low in the customs documents, with the value listed at $15,000 instead of the $950,000 to $1.5 million listed in the Natural History Auction catalog. The bones sold at auction on May 20 for $1,052,500.
The auction catalog describes the dinosaur as “an incredible complete skeleton, painstakingly excavated and prepared” and is “a stupendous, museum-quality specimen of one of the most emblematic dinosaurs ever to have stalked this earth.”
By contrast, the customs documents described the imports as “two large rough fossil reptile heads, six boxes of broken fossil bones, three rough fossil reptiles, one fossil lizard, three rough fossil reptiles and one fossil reptile skull.”
The final sale at the auction is contingent on the outcome of the case, Bharara’s office said.
Jim Halperin, co-chairman of Heritage Auction, said in statement, “We can’t comment on the lawsuit because we haven’t seen it yet.”
The case is U.S. v. One Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, 12CV4760, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).