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Updated: US Justice Department calls for return of tarbosaur fossil

A nearly complete tarbosaur fossil that sold for more than US$1 million was illegally smuggled out of Mongolia, claims a US Department of Justice (DOJ) civil complaint seeking the fossil’s return. The complaint was filed 18 June in a Manhattan federal court.

The sale of the Tyrannosaurus bataar fossil by Texas-based Heritage Auctions sparked widespread condemnation from palaeontologists, who questioned the company’s claim that the fossil was legally imported from China.

“Though these fossils could potentially be found in adjacent regions of the Gobi Desert of China, no specimens of this quality have been discovered there; and even if these fossils were originally found in China, their collection and export is still illegal,” said Philip Currie, president of the Bethesda, Maryland-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, in a 23 May statement on the case.

A Texas court issued a temporary restraining order on 19 May, requested by the Mongolian government, blocking sale or transfer of the fossil. Heritage went ahead with the auction on 20 May, which garnered nearly $1.1 million. Heritage has agreed not to complete the sale, pending conclusion of the Mongolian government’s case, and the fossil is being stored in New York (see a revised temporary restraining order updated after the sale here).

According to the DOJ complaint, the fossil was imported into the United States from England on 27 March 2010, and its importation documents contained several inaccuracies. The stated value of $15,000 was more than $1 million below its sale price, and the fossils were instead 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”.

Palaeontologists who examined the fossil earlier this month, including Currie, concluded that specimen was probably excavated from Mongolia’s western Gobi Desert between 1995 and 2005. Currie says that the fossil was probably moved across Mongolia’s porous border with China.

In a written statement, Jim Halperin, co-chairman of Heritage Auctions, said:

“We auctioned the Tyrannosaurus bataar conditionally, subject to future Court rulings, so this matter is now in the hands of lawyers and politicians. We believe our consignor purchased fossils in good faith, then spent a year of his life and considerable expense identifying, restoring, mounting and preparing what had previously been a much less valuable matrix of unassembled, underlying bones. We sincerely hope there will be a just and fair outcome for all parties.”

Currie hopes the US government’s interest in the case signals a crackdown on the looted fossil trade. “We think this is a major change in terms of the approach, and I think it won’t stop the whole problem of poaching in Mongolia, nevertheless it will send a pretty strong message,” he says. “I’m very encouraged.”

UPDATE 20 June 2012: A federal judge has asked the Department of Homeland Security to seize the fossil, Associated Press reports.

Image of Tyrannosaurus bataar fossil courtesy of Heritage Auctions

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