News: ICE returns Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton to Mongolia
Story by Michael Johnson
NEW YORK – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, looted from the Gobi Desert and illegally smuggled into the United States, to the government of Mongolia Monday during a repatriation ceremony at a Manhattan hotel. The bataar was seized in New York by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations special agents after it sold at a Manhattan auction for $1.05 million.
The return of this cultural property to Mongolia is the culmination of an investigation led by HSI New York and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.
The repatriation ceremony was conducted by ICE Director John Morton; U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara; Chief of Office of the President of Mongolia Tsagaan Puntsag and Mongolian Minister of Culture, Sport and Tourism Oyungerel Tsedevdamba.
"This is one of the most important repatriations of fossils in recent years," said Morton. "We cannot allow the greed of a few looters and schemers to trump the cultural interests of an entire nation. Through this case, HSI special agents have once again proven themselves to be the leading federal law enforcement experts in the investigation and forfeiture of stolen foreign art, antiquities and relics. Because of the collaborative effort between HSI and the U.S. Attorney's Office, we undo a great wrong by returning this priceless dinosaur skeleton to the people of Mongolia."
Bharara said, "Almost one year ago today, the Mongolian government requested this office’s assistance in stopping the sale of this Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton and facilitating its return to its rightful owners – the people of Mongolia. And thanks to the outstanding work of the prosecutors in my office, the skeleton will soon be on its way home and the man responsible for its illegal importation has been convicted. Cultural artifacts are part of the fabric of a country’s history, and it is immensely satisfying to play a role in their return."
"I join the people of Mongolia in thanking the special agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations units in New York, Florida, California, Ohio and Wyoming for their exceptional work and expertise and for their cooperation with the Mongolian State Investigation and Criminal Investigation Authorities," said President of Mongolia Tsakhia Elbegdorj. "I am deeply grateful to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for their wise leadership and legal expertise in this overall effort. I also commend the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, lawyers, judges and volunteers for their role in this case. Our two countries are separated by many miles, but share a passion for justice and a commitment to putting an end to illegal smuggling."
The nearly complete bataar skeleton, together with fossils of several other dinosaurs discovered by HSI, was illegally poached and smuggled out of Mongolia between 2005 and 2012.
The Tyrannosaurus bataar was originally discovered and named Tarbosaurus bataar by Russian paleontologist Evgeny Aleksandrovich Maleev in 1953. It was a carnivorous dinosaur, native to Mongolia, which lived during the late Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago. Bataar fossils have very specific coloration. They were first discovered in 1946, during a joint Soviet-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi Desert in the Mongolian Ömnögovi province.
For almost a century, Mongolian law has firmly established that all paleontological findings are government property and part of the nation’s rich cultural heritage. Since 1924, the Mongolian government has prohibited personal ownership and criminalized the export of items of cultural significance, such as dinosaur remains.
On May 19, HSI special agents in New York received information from the U.S. Department of State that a bataar skeleton from Mongolia was scheduled to be auctioned in New York May 20. The President of Mongolia asked for assistance in preventing the sale of the skeleton. He hired a private attorney in Texas, who obtained a temporary restraining order from the Dallas County District Court to prevent the sale of the skeleton. On May 20, Texas-based Heritage Auctions Inc., disregarded the state court order and went forward with the sale of the bataar skeleton. It sold for $1.05 million. The sale, however, was contingent upon the outcome of any court proceedings instituted on behalf of the Mongolian government.
According to court documents filed in Manhattan federal court, on March 27, 2010, the bataar skeleton was imported into the United States from Great Britain. The import documents contained several inaccuracies. First, the country of origin of the bataar skeleton was erroneously listed as Great Britain, but according to several paleontologists, Tyrannosaurus bataars have only been recovered in Mongolia. In addition, the bataar skeleton was substantially undervalued on the import documents. Customs forms listed its value at $15,000, in contrast to the $950,000 to $1.5 million list price in a 2012 auction catalog and the actual auction sale price of $1.05 million.
The bataar skeleton was also incorrectly described as two large, rough fossil reptile heads; six boxes of broken fossil bones; three rough fossil reptiles; one fossil lizard; three rough fossil reptiles and one fossil reptile skull.
On May 22, the President of Mongolia sent a letter to SDNY formally requesting the office’s "assistance in preserving Mongolia’s cultural heritage in this rare national treasure by ... seeking forfeiture of ... the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton."
On June 5, at the request of the President of Mongolia, several paleontologists specializing in Tyrannosaurus bataars examined the bataar skeleton. They concluded that it is a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton that was unearthed from the western Gobi Desert in Mongolia between 1995 and 2005. On June 18, SDNY filed a civil action seeking the forfeiture of the bataar skeleton and the district court issued a warrant authorizing HSI to seize the bataar skeleton.
On Sept. 24, SDNY filed an amended civil forfeiture complaint which included the original paleontological reports, as well as additional reports from those same paleontologists and others. The additional reports definitively state that the bataar skeleton came from Mongolia based on the particularized coloring of the bones.
On Oct. 17, HSI special agents arrested Eric Prokopi, 38, of Gainesville, Fla., the importer of the bataar skeleton, on one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possess stolen property, and make false statements; one count of smuggling goods into the United States and one count of interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods. Prokopi, a self-described "commercial paleontologist" was arrested on charges stemming from his illegal importation of the bataar and other dinosaur fossils into the United States.
On Dec. 27, shortly after his arrest, Prokopi pleaded guilty to engaging in a scheme to illegally import the fossilized remains of numerous dinosaurs that had been illegally removed from their native countries illegally and smuggled into the United States. As part of his plea agreement, Prokopi consented to the forfeiture of the bataar skeleton. Prokopi also agreed to forfeit a second, nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton; a Saurolophus skeleton and an Oviraptor skeleton. The skeletons were in his possession but have since been seized by HSI special agents. He further agreed to forfeit his interest in a third Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, which was located in Great Britain.
On Feb. 14, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel, SDNY, entered a judgment forfeiting the bataar skeleton to the United States for its return to Mongolia.
"After a yearlong legal adventure and the worldwide publicity, the Tarbousaurus bataar indeed became a hero dinosaur at home in Mongolia. We are extremely excited to accept it from HSI and are very grateful to all the organizations and individuals who helped make it happen," said Puntsag.
The return of this cultural property to Mongolia culminates an investigation by HSI New York, HSI Jacksonville, HSI Los Angeles, HSI Casper, HSI Cleveland, the SDNY, the Mongolian State Investigation Authority and the Mongolian Criminal Investigation Authority. Interpol Washington provided support in this investigation.
The forfeiture action was handled by the Asset Forfeiture Unit of SDNY. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sharon Cohen Levin and Martin S. Bell were in charge of the litigation. The criminal case was handled by the Complex Fraud Unit. Bell was in charge of the prosecution.
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 75 attaché offices in 48 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.
HSI's specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.
Since 2007, more than 6,600 artifacts have been returned to 24 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru; as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.
Learn more about HSI cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete its online tip form.
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