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Tarbosaurus on Trial

An almost certainly poached tyrannosaur skeleton kicks off a legal dispute over Mongolia's fossil heritage

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A few weeks ago, Heritage Auctions announced that it had a tyrannosaur to sell. The assembled and articulated Tarbosaurus was expected to fetch nearly a million dollars at the May 20 auction. Paleontologists shook their heads in dismay: Such specimens typically come with very little documentation and often end up in private collections, lost to researchers and the public alike. News services and aggregators made typically inane comments about the dinosaur being the perfect gift for the dinosaur aficionado who has everything. I expected the sale to go on and the dinosaur to disappear into some affluent buyer’s private collection.

But this dinosaur has rapidly become a symbol of a country’s pillaged heritage. Two days before the auction, the president of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, questioned the legality of selling the dinosaur. Every significant specimen of Tarbosaurus has been found in Mongolia since Russian paleontologist Evgeny Maleev initially described the dinosaur in 1955. The assembled skeleton undoubtedly came from Mongolia, and that country has strict regulations and heritage laws intended to halt fossil poaching. Dinosaur-collecting expeditions must acquire formal permission, and whatever those scientific explorations find remains in the country or is temporarily loaned to academic institutions by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. But this Tarbosaurus skeleton came out of nowhere.

According to the Heritage Auctions website, “The dino was discovered within the past decade and has been in storage in England, still in its field jackets, for the last 2-1/2 years.” (A time frame corroborated by a Daily Mail news item about the skeleton.) It seems that this dinosaur was collected recently and exported outside of Mongolia, all without the permission or cooperation of Mongolian authorities. The fact that the dinosaur secretly went from the field to a private collection alone is a strong indication that the Tarbosaurus was collected illegally—yet another victim of fossil poaching. Despite Mongolia’s laws, thieves often raid field sites and loot geologic formations for specimens that are subsequently smuggled out of the country to be sold elsewhere. Although Mongolia has regulations against such criminal activity, other countries do not necessarily have laws against importing illegally collected dinosaurs. This Tarbosaurus was almost certainly collected illegally, but it appears to have been imported to the United States legally.

Paleontologists joined Mongolia’s president in calling for the dinosaur to be returned to its country of origin. Regardless of its subsequent history, the fossil should not have left the country and fallen into private hands. (And the United States has returned smuggled fossils before, such as a set of seized fossils that had been illegally collected in China.) Paleontologists and concerned members of the public signed a petition demanding a halt to the auction, and lawyer Robert Painter obtained a temporary restraining order on the dinosaur’s sale. This created a bit of dinosaur drama when Heritage Auctions decided to go ahead with the auction. Right after the auctioneer announced that the sale of the Tarbosaurus was contingent upon the resolution of the legal dispute, Painter stood up to state that he had the judge who issued the restraining order on the phone and that going ahead with the auction was a violation of that order. At that point, according to a press release issued by Painter’s law firm, “Heritage Auctions, Inc. President Greg Rohan rushed toward Painter, refused to speak with Judge Cortez, asked Painter to leave the room and directed that the auction proceed.”

The Tarbosaurus was sold for a little over a million dollars. And while I haven’t heard any news about them, I assume that other Mongolian dinosaur fossils, including a skull of the ankylosaur Saichania, were also sold.

What ultimately happens to the Tarbosaurus skeleton depends on the legal skirmish. Heritage Auctions has refused to cooperate with paleontologists and Mongolian authorities. It insists that the dinosaur entered the United States legally, and therefore there was no hurdle to its sale. In an update to a Heritage Auctions press release issued after the dinosaur controversy broke, the auction house affirmed that “e are not aware of any treaty between the United States and Mongolia which would prevent the import into the United States and are equally unaware of any prohibition of export, particularly since Mongolia has not produced any factual or legal document supporting a possible claim.” There is every reason to believe that the dinosaur was found in Mongolia, and therefore that it was stolen from the land, but Heritage Auctions is focusing on regulations involving import and export.

At the very least, Heritage Auctions should have respected the wishes of the Mongolian government and paleontologists by halting the auction and investigating the provenance of the Tarbosaurus. Instead, the company bit its thumb at critics and went forward with the sale. At least there is still some hope that the dinosaur might be returned to Mongolia, pending the results of the legal dispute. This isn’t just about one dinosaur. Fossil poaching is a major problem, and the Tarbosaurus is certainly not the last illicit dinosaur we’re going to see go up for auction. (In fact, a Tarbosaurus leg of unknown origins is due to go up for auction today at Christie’s in England.) If the Tarbosaurus goes back to Mongolia, the decision might help many other illegally obtained fossils find their way home.

UPDATE: The dinosaur lab at London’s Natural History Museum tweeted that Christie’s has decided to postpone the sale of the Tarbosaurus leg until the provenance of the fossil is determined. This is a step in the right direction, and hopefully auction houses will work more closely with paleontologists to prevent the sale of illegal and illicit fossils.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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