The auction houses, of course, make sure their offerings come with documented provenance. In only a few hours in April 2007, Christie's in Paris gaveled off fossils worth more than $1.5 million—including a dinosaur egg that went for $97,500 and the fossilized skeleton of a Siberian mammoth that fetched $421,200. In December 2007, a 70-million-year- old mosasaur a—30-foot carnivorous underwater reptile excavated in North Africa—brought more than $350,000 at Los Angeles auctioneer Bonhams & Butterfields. In January 2008, Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas sold the largest mastodon skull ever found for $191,000 and a 55-million-year-old lizard from the Dominican Republic, its flesh and skin preserved in amber, for $97,000. "The day's tally was $4.187 million," says auction director Herskowitz. "While I can't disclose who my buyers were, I can say many of them have small to substantive museums on their properties."
Then there's eBay. When I logged on recently, I discovered 838 fossil specimens for sale, including a spectacular ammonite—an ancestor of today's chambered nautilus—expected to go for upward of $3,000. Very little was disclosed about where any of the fossils came from. "Here's what I can tell you about eBay," says Carrano. "If a fossil being sold there comes from Morocco, China, Mongolia, Argentina or a number of other nations, at some point it was part of an illegal process, since those countries don't allow commercial fossil export."
In the United States, the law regulating fossil excavation and export is far from straightforward. Property statutes state that any fossil taken with permission from privately owned land may be owned and sold—which is why legitimate excavators usually harvest fossils from individual landowners. A complex series of regulations apply to fossils removed from federal and state land (including Bureau of Land Management [BLM] tracts, national forests and grasslands, and state and national parks) and what are known as jurisdictional lands—for example, the public land held by Harding County, South Dakota.
To complicate matters, some fossil materials—limited amounts of petrified wood or fossil plants, for example—may be removed from certain public lands without oversight or approval. In most cases, however, permits are required; applications are reviewed according to a time-consuming process. Prospectors who want to cash in quickly on a single find are often reluctant to abide by the law. Given that there are nearly 500 million acres of publicly held land in the United States (two-thirds of which contain some of the best excavation zones in the world), prospectors who dig illegally are not often caught. "Newly harvested fossils are flooding the commercial market," says Larry Shackelford, a special agent with the BLM in Salt Lake City. "Running down each one and checking where it came from? We don't have the manpower."
In fact, law enforcement officials can barely keep up with prosecutions already underway. Although state and federal officials may not discuss cases currently in litigation, they acknowledge that volume is increasing. "In most districts, we easily see one or two new leads a month," says Bart Fitzgerald, a BLM special agent in Arizona. "Mostly these become civil cases. We understand that enthusiasm gets the best of people sometimes. Someone finds an amazing fossil and they take it home. Mostly we just want to recover the fossil—it's government property. But once in a while, we see a case where clearly the intent was criminal: where people were knowingly extracting fossils from public land for private profit. Those we prosecute criminally."
A major criminal case began unfolding in 2006, when a largely intact Allosaurus—a meat-eating older cousin of T. rex—was taken from public land in Utah. The excavator went to great lengths to look legitimate, including creating bogus letters of provenance. The dinosaur bones were first transported from Utah to a U.S. buyer, then to a purchaser in Europe, before finally being sold to a collector in Asia. In February 2007, the Allosaurus poacher—who had been turned in anonymously—was convicted on one count of theft of federal property.
Several years earlier, a high-profile case involved paleo-prospector Larry Walker, who discovered a cache of fossil Therizinosaurs—a rare dinosaur/bird hybrid—in the desert outside his Moab, Utah, hometown. Working at night beneath camouflage netting, Walker excavated 30 to 40 of the creatures' distinctive ripping claws, then sold the specimens at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show for a total take of roughly $15,000.
"He knew what he was doing was illegal," says Loren Good, a special agent for the BLM's Idaho district. "Working with the FBI, we did a joint investigation into the source of the claws and prosecuted Mr. Walker. He received a ten-month incarceration and a $15,000 fine."
"These cases come in all forms," says the BLM's Fitzgerald. "Take the example of some tour operators in Montana. They took a group of tourists out recently on a fossil-hunting trip, strayed onto public land and extracted fossils from a good site there. Was it an honest mistake or a calculated commercial move?" Fitzgerald asks. "After all, the tour operators carried GPS units; they knew precisely where they were." (Charges have not yet been filed.)
In the Tinker case, the prosecution claimed that Frithiof knew he was on county property when he found the Tinker specimen, that he had signed the agreement with Harding County without informing officials of the find and that he had negotiated a perhaps $8.5 million sale without telling the county. "Harding County believes Mr. Frithiof first discovered the specimen's location, then induced the county into a lease, knowing the value of what existed on the property without disclosing it to us," says Ken Barker, a Belle Fourche, South Dakota, attorney retained by the county to prosecute the case. "Because of this, we seek to void the lease agreement, entered into fraudulently, and to recover the county's property."