U.S. government sides with Mongolia in Tarbosaurus case

by Fong Sam

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has now intervened on the side of Mongolia in the ongoing case of a Tarbosaurus (or Tyrannosaurus bataar) fossil that sold at Heritage Auctions on May 20 for over $1M. The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit demanding forfeiture of the specimen on the basis that the bones were illegally smuggled into the United States from Great Britain.

Apparently, the customs document stated that the country of origin for the dinosaur bones is Great Britain. A group of paleontologists unanimously agreed that the fossil could only have come from Mongolia. Furthermore, the customs document priced the fossil at $15,000. The estimate from Heritage’s auction catalog had it at $950,000 to $1.5M.

The customs document describes the import 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.”

In contrast, Heritage’s description reads:

“This is an incredible, complete skeleton, painstakingly excavated and prepared, and mounted in a dramatic, forward-leaning running pose. The quality of preservation is superb, with wonderful bone texture and delightfully mottled grayish bone color… The body is 75% complete and the skull 80%, and it is mounted on a discreet gray-painted armature. Measuring 24 feet in length and standing 8 feet high, it is a stupendous, museum-quality specimen of one of the most emblematic dinosaurs ever to have stalked this Earth. Bone map and restoration details available upon request.”

It is curious that Heritage’s description clearly states that the dinosaur is a Tyrannosaurus bataar, the Asian cousin to the North American T-Rex. Did someone not reconcile this with the customs document, which erroneously states that it came from Great Britain? Moreover, a precursory investigation would show that Mongolia has very strict laws against the exportation of such fossils. Red flags should have immediately been raised. Heritage has no comments so far.

Numerous scientists protested the sale, which Heritage ignored. David Hone of the Guardian laid out a case for ending all fossil sales based on moral and scientific reasons. Certainly the fact that these bones were smuggled into the country spotlights the underbelly of this business. This decision by the U.S. government is a big win for science.

UPDATE: The U.S. government is set to seize the dinosaur bones tomorrow (Friday).