Smuggled Dinosaur Returned to Mongolia: T-Rex Cousin Sent Home After NYC Ceremony
A dinosaur skeleton that caused an international fracas at a New York City auction was formally returned back to Mongolia on Monday after officials from the country collected the bones of the Tarbosaurus bataar, an Asian cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
The 8-feet high and 24-feet long Bataar skeleton, which has been in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since last June, was illegally imported. Paleontologist Eric Prokopi pleaded guilty to illegally importing fossilized remains of numerous dinosaurs that had been smuggled out of their homelands, including the now famous bataar specimen. Prokopi imported the fossils from a dealer in Great Britain and prosecutors accused him of undervaluing the items and lying about what he shipped to the U.S.
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"We are very pleased to have played a pivotal role in returning Mongolia's million-dollar baby," said U.S. attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan at the ceremony.
Prokopi received the bones in 2010 when they were valued at just $15,000—a truly unbelievable steal for a complete skeleton of one of the greatest predators of the modern-day Gobi desert area.
"This is an incredible, complete skeleton, painstakingly excavated and prepared," the catalogue for the auction house stated. "It is a stupendous, museum-quality specimen of one of the most emblematic dinosaurs ever to have stalked this earth."
The bones were sold last May at the auction house for more than $1 million to an anonymous phone bidder. The sale alerted prosecutors, who then nullified the deal. Heritage Auctions cooperated with the government and no sale was made to the multimillionaire bidder.
"By returning this dinosaur, we right a great wrong," said John Morton, Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "This dinosaur skeleton belongs in Mongolia, not on the black market."
After the sale, Mongolian officials requested for the official return of the dinosaur, which was likely unearthed from the Gobi desert between 1995 to 2005, according to experts.
The case has certainly opened the eyes of Mongolian officials to the country's role in the excavation of these prized finds.
"Before T. bataar, we vaguely knew about what we had, we knew we are a land of dinosaurs," Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Mongolia's minister of culture, sports and tourism, said. "[But] we didn't have a single star who can be a representation of the whole paleontological heritage that we have. That's why Tarbosaurus bataar became like a hero."