Heritage Auctions, a collectibles auctioneer based in Texas, United States auctioned the Tarbosaurus bataar in New York City in May 2014. In the run-up to that sale, paleontologists and the Mongolian government had alerted US authorities that the Tarbosaurus bataar was almost certainly Mongolian.
The Tarbosaurus bataar, which roamed Asia during the late Cretaceous period, around 70 million years ago, was being sold on behalf of Eric Prokopi, a fossil preparer and dealer who lives in Gainesville, Florida.
Mongolia’s Gobi Desert in the country’s south is rich with dinosaur fossils. Paleontologists are not sure why so many dinosaur fossils have been found from Mongolia, although during the Cretaceous (114 to 65 million years ago), the concentration of dinosaurs in Mongolia was probably similar to other places around the world. What makes Mongolia unusual is the broad exposure of Cretaceous-age sediments in the Gobi Desert. The sediments are actively eroding, causing many dinosaurs skeletons to be exposed. The lack of vegetation and the active uplift of mountain ranges, like the Gobi Altai, have accelerated the erosion.
The first skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar was found in 1946 by an expedition of the Paleontological Institute of the Academy of Sciences (USSR). In 1955, the Russian paleontologist Maleev initially named the species Tyrannosaurus bataar. Later, another Russian paleontologist, A.K. Rozhdestvensky, placed it in the new genus Tarbosaurus to emphasize its differences with its North American cousin Tyrannosaurus. Nearly all specimens of Tarbosaurus are known from Mongolia and it is the only place where entire skeletons have been found. Most of these come from the Nemegt Valley of Gurvantes soum, Omnogobi aimag.
Mongolia has long banned private ownership and export of fossils found within its borders. Nonetheless, many specimens are smuggled out and pass through US customs with vague or misleading labels, and Mongolian dinosaur fossils are openly sold in the United States at auctions and trade fairs, paleontologists say.
Following Tarbosaurus bataar many other fossils smuggled out of Mongolia have been repatriated and the Tarbosaurus bataar flew “first class” gratis on board the Korean Air.
Brief chronology of Tarbosaurus bataar case and additional 22 dinosaurs
Written by paleontologist Dr. Bolortsetseg Minjin
- 17 May 2012. The Mongolian president was informed about an auction of a Mongolian dinosaur in NY.
- 19 May 2012. We got the TRO from Texas judge through the president’s lawyer Robert Painter.
- 19 May 2012. Auction proceeded despite the TRO but sale contingent on resolution of Mongolia’s claim of ownership.
- 1 June 2012. Was the date to hear Mongolia’s case against Heritage Auction. Instead of a hearing, Heritage Auction agreed to work together to determine the country of origin of T. bataar with the help of paleontologists from Mongolia, Canada, and USA.
- 5 June 2012. Team of paleontologists Dr. Bolortsetseg Min- jin, Dr. Tsogtbaatar Khishigjav and Dr. Philip Currie confirms that T. bataar was collected from Mongolia, probably the Nemegt Basin in south Mongolia.
- 22 June 2012. US government takes over the case and confiscates the skeleton.
- 5 Sept. 2012. Lawyers for Eric Prokopi claim in court that the bones of the T. bataar skeleton came from different individuals and possibly from different Asian countries.
- 19 Sept. 2012. The team of paleontologists who studied the specimen on June 5 provided a letter to the NY judge presiding over the case further emphasizing their conclusion that the vast majority of the skeleton is from a single individual and was collected from Mongolia. Letters from other paleontologists from China, Kazakhstan, US, Great Britain corroborated the view that the only Central Asian country that could have produced this skeleton was Mongolia. Mongolian investigation: Mongolian police have an active investigation into Eric Prokopi and illegal collecting and export of dinosaur fossils in Mongolia. They have discovered that Mr. Pro- kopi visited Mongolia on several occasions. They have also identified a Mongolian businessman who illegally collected and exported fossils from Mongolia (who unfortunately is now deceased), and witnesses have provided testimony that during one of these visits, this individual took Mr. Prokopi on a fossil collecting expedition to the Gobi, including sites near the Nemegt Basin, where most T. baatar specimens have been collected.
- 17 Oct. 2012. Eric Prokopi was arrested for smuggling dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia. Seizure of additional dinosaurs from his home.
- 28 Dec. 2012. Eric Prokopi pleaded guilty.
- 5 May 2013. Repatriation event for the Tarbosaurus bataar in NYC.
- 10 May 2013. HSI recovered 17 dinosaurs from Chris Moore of England through Eric Prokopi.
- 14 May 2013. T bataar left NYC for Mongolia.
- 8 June 2013. T. bataar exhibit opened to the public of Mongolia. Nearly 500,000 people visited the exhibit.
17 May 2013. T. bataar arrived in Mongolia. 10 July 2014. Repatriation event for 22 Mongolian dinosaurs.