Dinosaur bones headed home to Mongolia

An international custody battle over a 70 million-year-old dinosaur skeleton ended Monday with the fossil being repatriated to Mongolia after having been illegally smuggled, handed from owner to owner multiple times and sold at auction.

The "nearly complete" skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar -- also known as a Tarbousaurus bataar -- was turned over to representatives of the government of Mongolia by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. attorney's office in a New York City repatriation ceremony.

"This is one of the most important repatriations of fossils in recent years," said ICE Director John Morton. "We cannot allow the greed of a few looters and schemers to trump the cultural interests of an entire nation."

"After a year-long legal adventure and the worldwide publicity, the Tarbousaurus bataar indeed became a hero dinosaur at home in Mongolia," said Tsagaan Puntsag from the office of the president of Mongolia. "(We) are very grateful to all the organizations and individuals who helped make it happen."

A rare skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar was sold for $1.05 million before custody was granted to Mongolia.

Under Mongolian law, dinosaur fossils are property of the Mongolian government and exporting them from the country is a criminal offense.

According to court documents, the dinosaur skeleton was imported into the United States from Great Britain on March 27, 2010.

Largely inaccurate import documents listed the bones' country of origin as Great Britain, while several paleontologists say Tyrannosaurus bataars have been recovered only in Mongolia.

The skeleton, standing 8 feet tall and stretching 24 feet in length, also was incorrectly described as various fossil reptile bones and other broken bones.

U.S. authorities gained possession of the skeleton after a self-described "commercial paleontologist" from Florida pleaded guilty in December 2012 to smuggling and other charges. As part of his plea agrement the defendant, Eric Prokopi, agreed to forfeit the bataar skeleton, as well four other dinosaur skeletons.

Prokopi, whom federal investigators called "a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils," is out on $100,000 bond and is awaiting sentencing that is tentatively scheduled for August.

He faces a maximum sentence of 17 years in prison, according to his lawyer Georges Lederman.

Lederman has advised his client not to make any statements until he is sentenced.

The government has requested, however, that Prokopi be available to lend his expertise to Mongolian paleontologists about shipping and reconstructing of the skeleton, and he is complying, according to his lawyer.

Earlier in 2012, the skeleton had been listed in an auction catalogue of Texas-based Heritage Auctions, Inc. at an estimated value between $950,000 to $1.5 million.

Around the same time, Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia hired a private attorney who obtained a temporary restraining order from the Dallas County District Court to prevent the sale of the skeleton.

"At stake are the heritage, history and culture of a sovereign nation," attorneys for Tsakhia said in the restraining order filing.

The auction house disregarded the restraining order, and it was sold to an undisclosed buyer in New York for $1.05 million on May 20, 2012, contingent upon the outcome of any court proceedings instituted on behalf of the Mongolian government.

In the following months, investigations by U.S. authorities and paleontologists determined the skeleton was from the western Gobi Desert in Mongolia, uncovered between 1995 and 2005.

The U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York filed action to seek forfeit of the bones, which were eventually seized by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Monday, "Cultural artifacts are part of the fabric of a country's history, and it is immensely satisfying to play a role in their return."

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