This fossilized ankylosaurid skull is one of the items under investigation by authorities. Image Source: Live Science.
Curios is my series of blog posts on oddities that turn up at auction houses. Remember this post from May 2012, about a bunch of fossils that went on the block in New York City? It turns out that this collection was part of the black market trade in fossil smuggling, according to the Mongolian government, and now the courts. Live Science (28 December 2012; Hat tip: Graham Hancock's Alternative Newsdesk):
A fossil dealer's guilty plea has set the stage for what is most likely the largest dinosaur fossil repatriation in history, according to an attorney representing the President of Mongolia, the country that will receive most of the fossils that federal officials are seizing from fossil dealer and preparer Eric Prokopi. On Thursday (Dec. 27) Prokopi pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to smuggling fossils and agreed to forfeit a small menagerie of dinosaurs to federal officials. All but one of the dinosaurs in question came from Mongolia, where law makes fossils state property, and among them is a high-profile skeleton that received a $1.05 million bid at auction. "We have looked into this, and we can't find any instance anywhere when one country has returned to another a lot of dinosaurs this large and this significant that have been looted or smuggled," said Robert Painter, attorney for Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia. ...
The auction house made the following comment:On June 18, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced a civil suit claiming the federal government had the right to seize the Tarbosaurus because those who imported it did so knowing it was stolen, and the customs forms accompanying it contained false information. Federal agents then got a warrant to pick up the bones and take them into protective custody until the case is resolved.
Heritage Auctions has not identified the seller or the buyer, citing a need to protect confidentiality. "Somebody doesn't put something like this in a major auction that is broadcast and promoted worldwide if they have got something to hide. If there is a title problem, you go and sell it secretly to someone in a backroom for a suit case full of cash," Rohan said. "That is something we have nothing to do with."
Image Source: Eric Prokopi via Live Science.
The fossil seller, who later pleaded guilty, initially insisted that he was completely innocent:
Eric Prokopi, the Florida fossil dealer, who restored the Tarbosaurus and was attempting to sell it at the public auction, released a statement dated June 22 saying “I'm just a guy in Gainesville, Florida trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler.” Prokopi denied paleontologists’ assertions that the skeleton must have come from Mongolia and the U.S. Attorney’s claim he made false statements on customs documents. The disruption of the sale as been financially devastating to him, Prokopi wrote. “All I can do now is hope and pray the American legal system will uphold American laws and not sacrifice my rights and freedoms to please a foreign government out for a political trophy.”