NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. authorities in New York have returned a 70-million-year-old nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton to the Mongolian government.
The skeleton was looted from the Gobi Desert and illegally smuggled into the U.S. by Eric Prokopi, authorities said.
It was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after it was sold at auction in New York City for more than $1 million last year. The deal was suspended.
Prokopi, who bought and sold whole and partial dinosaur skeletons out of his Florida home, illegally imported the bones into the U.S., then assembled them into a skeleton, authorities said.
Investigators found 400-lbs of fossils in Prokopi’s home, he pleaded guilty to charges related to fossil smuggling, CBS 2’s Dana Tyler reported.
The government said the dinosaur skeleton was mislabeled as reptile bones from Great Britain.
“(They smuggled it in by) saying that it came from countries that it didn’t, saying it was something it wasn’t,” ICE Director John Morton told “CBS This Morning.” “This was a very large dinosaur. Hundreds of bones had to be brought in actually from the rock in which it was dug up in the Gobi Desert and then ultimately assembled here in New York.”
By law, any dinosaur fossils found in Mongolia belong to the country and its people.
Robert Painter, attorney for the Mongolian government, told CBS This Morning that these kinds of sales drive a black market.
“There’s a global market for the sale of these illicit fossils, so what you’re talking about here is a trade that’s millions and millions of dollars each year,” he said.
Prokopi pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy, the fraudulent transfer of dinosaur bones and making false statements to customs authorities, officials said.
“We are very pleased to have played a pivotal role in returning Mongolia’s million dollar baby,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “Of course, that million dollar price tag, as high as it is, doesn’t begin to describe the true value of an ancient artifact that is part of the fabric of a country’s natural history and cultural heritage – priceless.”
The President of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, thanked U.S. authorities for working so hard to have the fossils returned to their rightful home.
“Our two countries are separated by many miles, but share a passion for justice and a commitment to putting an end to illegal smuggling,” Elbegdorj said in a statement.
The Mongolian Culture Minister said the recovery of the artifact is important for her country.
“It’s a piece of world history in these bones,” she said.
The bataar is a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex and once stood 8 feet tall and was 24 feet long.
“The T-bataar could weigh as much as six tons, reach lengths of 40 feet and had up to 60 teeth,” Morton said.
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