Smuggled Dinosaur Skeleton: How Did Eric Prokopi Get A T-Rex Fossil Out Of Mongolia?
An 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar -- a close relative of the T-Rex -- will be returned to Mongolia, where it was discovered. The dinosaur skeleton, which was found in the Gobi desert sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, was smuggled into the U.S. in May 2012 by 37-year-old fossil collector Eric Prokopi.
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The International Business Times reports that the 70 million-year-old T-Rex skeleton will be returned to the Mongolian government after a heated international custody battle.
"In Mongolia, if you find a dinosaur fossil anywhere in the country, it belongs to the people of Mongolia," Robert Painter, the Mongolian government's attorney, explained to CBS News back in Dec. 2012. "This skeleton is in the United States illegally."
Prokopi, who calls himself a "commercial paleontologist," initially labeled the smuggled dinosaur fossils as reptile bones from Great Britain. He got them from an anonymous dealer in England, and prepared and mounted the specimen with Heritage Auctions in New York City, according to the International Business Times. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents seized the dinosaur after it was sold at a New York City auction last year for over $1.1 million.
The sale of the dinosaur came to the attention of the Mongolian government after a Mongolian paleontologist who lives in New York saw the dinosaur fossil on a television report and speculated that the fossil came illegally from Mongolia. "[She] discovered that the online auction catalogue listed the item's provenance as "Central Asia" -- a vague term often considered code for Mongolia and China, both of which forbid the commercial export of fossils found within their borders," the New Yorker reports.
Authorities said that Prokopi bought and sold whole and partial dinosaur skeletons from his home in Florida. He imported the bones illegally and assembled them here. When authorities raided Prokopi's home in Gainesville, Fla. last year, they found 400 pounds of fossils.
The New Yorker reports that Prokopi started selling fossils in high school. At the beginning of his fossil dealing career, he sold sloth claws, elephant jaws, dinosaur ribs and wolf molars. Then, he started dealing in bigger contraband; one of his first larger sales, in the fall of 2011, was that of two Mongolian oviraptor nests for more than $350 each.
The Gobi desert in Mongolia is well-known for its fossil reserves. But, unlike the U.S., Mongolia does not allow the private sale of fossils discovered within the country's borders. Instead, the government requires that all fossils be made available to the public.
"Fossils belong in museums where EVERYONE can see and learn from them, not in some rich, fat douchebag's mansion or in some Wall Street office," one commenter noted on an online petition opposing last year's auction.
After the dinosaur fossil was returned to Mongolia, the President of Mongolia issued a statement thanking the U.S. for its cooperation. "Our two countries are separated by many miles, but share a passion for justice and a commitment to putting an end to illegal smuggling," Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the President of Mongolia, said.
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