Feds Take Disputed Dinosaur Fossils into Custody

Just as this dinosaur specimen, a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, went up for auction on May 20, a question arose as to whether or not it was taken illegally from Mongolia.
Just as this dinosaur specimen, a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, went up for auction on May 20, a question arose as to whether or not it was taken illegally from Mongolia. (Image credit: Wynne Parry)

NEW YORK — Federal agents took possession of a dinosaur skeleton that is the subject of an ownership dispute on Friday afternoon, loading crates of fossilized bones into the back of a white truck from a storage building here in Sunnyside, Queens. 

Homeland Security Investigations was taking the fossils to an undisclosed location for safekeeping until a federal case filed by the U.S. Attorney is resolved, Deputy Special Agent In Charge Glenn Sorge told reporters.  

The fossils, which belong to a type of tyrannosaur called a Tarbosaurus, were sold at auction on May 20 on the condition of court approval. Mongolian officials and paleontologists say the 75-percent complete skeleton, which garnered a $1.1 million bid at the auction, was taken illegally from that country. [Album: Battle over a Tarbosaurus]

Since the auction, the auction house in charge of the sale, Heritage Auctions, has stored the Tarbosaurus bataar in a Cadogan Tate Fine Art facility in Sunnyside. 

Federal agents loaded crates containing dinosaur bones into a truck on Friday afternoon in Queens, N.Y., when they took possession of the fossils, which are the subject of an ownership dispute. (Image credit: Wynne Parry)

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has sued to take possession of the dinosaur with the intent of returning it to Mongolia. On Tuesday (June 19), a federal judge signed a warrant allowing federal agents to seize the fossils while the legal case continues.

"Once that ownership is determined, we are confident that very quickly this dinosaur will be back in Mongolia," said Robert Painter, attorney for Mongolian President Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia. 

Now that the dinosaur is in federal custody, the case can proceed in two ways, he said. If anyone else comes forward and makes a claim of ownership to the fossils, then the case would be litigated. If no one does so, then the U.S. government can move for a default judgment, which would give it ownership. If this latter scenario plays out, Painter said the Tarbosaurus could go back to Mongolia this year. 

"This is very happy news for the paleontological community, not only Mongolian paleontology, it's the whole international paleontology community, because this really shows the paleontologists government cares (about) this thing and acknowledges this is part of history, acknowledges this is the culture heritage," said Bolorsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist. 

The U.S. attorney's bid to seize the fossils hinges on the argument that false statements appeared on customs forms accompanying the dinosaur when it entered the United States, as well as a claim that those importing the fossils knew they were stolen. The complaint filed with the court names the commercial fossil dealer Eric Prokopi as the person who received the fossils.

In a statement issued to the media, Prokopi denied paleontologists' assertion the fossils must have been excavated in Mongolia, and said he had made no false statements.

"It's been claimed that I misrepresented what was being imported and did not properly declare its value. I can wholeheartedly say the import documents are not fraudulent, a truth I am confident will be brought to light in the coming weeks," Prokopi wrote. [A Gallery of Forgeries]

Prokopi added that he was stunned by some of the reaction to the sale.

"I'm just a guy in Gainesville, Florida, trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler like I have been portrayed by some in the media," he wrote.

Heritage Auctions plans to continue to work with Prokopi regarding the disposition of the skeleton, and hopes the fossils can be put on display publicly in the meantime, Jim Halperin, co-chairman of the auction house said in a statement. 

Follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.