Jun. 26 – The 70-million-year-old skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus Bataar, (an Asian cousin of North America’s tyrannosaurus rex) that was discovered in Mongolia more than 65 years ago, will be seized from the Dallas-based Heritage Auctions by the end of this week, according to the U.S. authorities.
A federal judge in New York has signed a warrant that allows the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to seize the skeleton, which now is stored in New York.
“We should have it by the end of the week,” said Luis Martinez, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The seizure will be a “major step forward” for the government of Mongolia, which is claiming ownership and seeking the skeleton’s return, said Robert Painter, a Houston attorney who represents Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia.
Elbegdorj attempted to halt the auction of the skeleton on May 20, however, the auction house in charge of selling it, Heritage Auctions, went ahead with the sale, making it conditional on court approval. An anonymous bidder has agreed to pay US$1.1 million for the dinosaur skeleton which stands at 8 feet (2.4m) tall and 24 feet (7.3m) long.
In New York, U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel on Tuesday issued an order to seize the fossil, ruling there was probable cause it was subject to forfeiture under federal laws.
“From a legal standpoint, the U.S. government’s lawsuit shifts the burden of proof from Mongolia to Heritage and others who might make a claim to its ownership,” Painter said.
Paleontologists believe the Tarbosaurus came from Mongolia, because clearly identifiable remains from this species have been found only in the Nemegt Formation, which is located in Mongolia. The Nemegt Formation is located in Mongolia’s portion of the Gobi Desert. Under Mongolian law, vertebrate fossils excavated within its borders are state property.
Heritage Auctions and the Mongolian government agreed in May to jointly investigate the ownership of the skeleton. Several paleontologists examined the skeleton several weeks ago and determined it was removed from the western Gobi Desert in Mongolia between 1995 and 2005.
Federal officials said smugglers made false statements about the skeleton when it was imported into the United States from Britain in 2010. The skeleton did not originate in Britain nor was its value only US$15,000 as claimed, they said.
According to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who filed a lawsuit seeking the forfeiture of the nearly intact skeleton and its return to the Mongolian government, the skeleton was discovered in 1946 during a joint Soviet-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia’s Omnogovi Province.
Mongolia has had laws in place since 1924 prohibiting the export of dinosaur fossils that are considered national treasures and government property.
Paleontologists say the poaching of fossils in Mongolia has intensified over the years. Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta who examined the Tarbosaurus, told LiveScience that based on his own examination of the bones, he thinks the specimen was the subject of two rounds of poaching.
Unskilled poachers often take the teeth and the claws off a specimen, leaving or destroying the rest, he said. This Tarbosaurus is missing most of its claws and teeth. The rest of the specimen was removed by excavators with more skill, but even so, the job was not well done, Currie said.
“There is a lot of restoration done on the bones to make them look good, but when you look closely at it you can see there is a lot of plaster restoration towards the ends of the bone, a lot of the processes [protrusions] are broken or chipped off and gone,” he said.