U.S. returning trove of smuggled dinosaur fossils to Mongolia

NEW YORK Fri May 10, 2013 7:21pm EDT

A dinosaur fossil is seen during a ceremony in New York in this May 6, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/Files

A dinosaur fossil is seen during a ceremony in New York in this May 6, 2013 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer/Files

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States will return to Mongolia more than a dozen illegally smuggled dinosaur skeletons, including two Tyrannosaurus bataars that are 70 million years old and at least six fossilized Oviraptors, U.S. officials said on Friday.

The announcement followed the handover to Mongolian officials on Monday of another T. bataar skeleton, which had been sold at auction in New York for more than $1 million before it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

That sale, which took place in May against the orders of a Texas judge, led authorities to recover more skeletons during a series searches over the ensuing months.

"The recovery of this treasure trove of dinosaur fossils is the latest significant step in returning missing pieces of the Mongolian people's history that were literally dug out from under them," Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for New York's southern district, said in a statement.

Mongolia, whose portion of the Gobi Desert is rich with dinosaur fossils, has long banned the private ownership and export of fossils found within its borders. Nonetheless, many specimens are smuggled out and pass through U.S. customs with vague or misleading labels, and Mongolian dinosaur fossils are openly sold in the United States at auctions and trade fairs, paleontologists say.

Texas-based Heritage Auctions auctioned the T. bataar in New York City last May. In the run-up to that sale, paleontologists and the Mongolian government alerted U.S. authorities that the T. bataar was almost certainly Mongolian.

The T. bataar, which died during the late Cretaceous period, was being sold on behalf of Eric Prokopi, a fossil preparer and dealer in Gainesville, Florida. Many of the other fossils whose repatriation was announced on Friday had also passed through his hands, the U.S. attorney said.

They included a Saurolophus angustirostris that Prokopi had tried to sell through an auction house in California, and at least five Oviraptor skeletons that, coincidentally, arrived in a delivery truck at Prokopi's home as it was being searched by federal agents in October.

Prokopi pleaded guilty to smuggling charges in December, and was released on bail pending sentencing in August. Georges Lederman, his lawyer, said on Friday that Prokopi had never sought to profit from the fossils.

"The government has painted my client as some nefarious black-market smuggler," Lederman said in a telephone interview. "He is not. He is a young man with a wife and two young children who has pursued his lifelong love of dinosaurs and fossils. He is hardly a wealthy man."

Prokopi had spent more than 1,000 hours mounting the original T. bataar skeleton, and agreed to the U.S. government's request that he help with the skeleton's disassembling and packing for its return to Mongolia, Lederman said.

"He wanted to make sure it was done right," he added.

Another T. bataar skeleton, several Gallimimus skeletons, an Ankylosaurus skeleton and skull, a Protoceratops skeleton and several dinosaur egg fossils will also be returned to Mongolia, according to the prosecutor.

The Mongolian Embassy in Washington had no comment Friday.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Doina Chiacu)