U.S. Authorities Set Out to Track Down Tarbosaurus Fossils

It may seem like a plot from Primeval or Jurassic Park but American customs officials are on the hunt for a missing dinosaur in the aftermath of a guilty plea from a Florida based, commercial fossil dealer.  Last week, Floridian Eric Prokopi pleaded guilty to falsifying importation documents and making misleading statements concerning the contents of crates of fossils imported into the United States.

Hunt for Tarbosaurus

The trail of the Tarbosaurus fossils began when an eight metre long, mounted specimen was offered for sale at Heritage Auctions in New York last May.  The exhibit fetched over $1 million USD when sold, but the lot was seized by U.S. officials as the fossils were alleged to have been illegally shipped out of Mongolia, the only place in the world where Tarbosaurus fossils have been found (Nemegt Formation).  It has been illegal for such artefacts to be shipped out of Mongolia for more than fifty years.

Tarbosaurus (Tarbosaurus bataar), was an apex predator of the Late Cretaceous.  Closely related to the more famous Tyrannosaurus rex, this dinosaur is sometimes called Tyrannosaurus bataar, indeed this is how the lot was described when first put up for auction in New York.

An Illustration of a Tarbosaurus Dinosaur

Fossils hopefully being repatriated back to Mongolia.

Picture credit: Everything Dinosaur

The image (above) is a Tarbosaurus dinosaur model from CollectA.

To view this range: Tarbosaurus Models and Theropod Figures (CollectA Age of Dinosaurs).

Last week, Eric Prokopi the seller of the Tarbosaurus fossil pleaded guilty to a number of charges referring to making false claims concerning the import of fossil material into the United States.  He is due to be sentenced in April and such charges can lead to up to seventeen years in prison however, in a plea bargain Mr Prokopi is helping the American authorities with the recovery of other fossils that may have been illegally imported into the United States.

Court Papers

Court papers reveal that one Tarbosaurus specimen, part of a set of six of these dinosaur fossils is still not accounted for, it is believed to be somewhere in Britain.  The other five specimens were in Mr Prokopi’s possession and these have been seized by U.S. officials, however, the Tarbosaurus which, according to the court documents may be in the United Kingdom, remains unaccounted for.  Sources have revealed that the plea agreement refers to “one nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar specimen purchased from a Mongolian individual and located in Great Britain.”

The hunt is on to see if the Tarbosaurus fossils can be found and U.S. Customs will be interested in trying to understand more about how these rare Asian dinosaur fossils came to be shipped into America in the first place.  They are keen to trace the movements of the fossils from Asia into America via the United Kingdom.  The Mongolian government is believed to be keen to unite all the known Tarbosaurus fossil material together to make an exhibit at their own dinosaur museum in Mongolia.  A request from the Mongolian government has been sent to London asking for assistance in the return of such artefacts should they be located in the Britain.

The Tarbosaurus Mounted Skeleton Offered for Sale in New York

The skeleton offered for sale at an auction in New York.

Picture credit: Reuters/Heritage Auctions

The hunt for the fossil, follows a lengthy investigation into a global trade in dinosaur bones ranging from a New York auction to southern England’s Jurassic coast.  Legal documents seen by a national newspaper suggest that a consignment of fossils was sent from the UK to Mr Prokopi in Florida.  It seems that the guilty plea may not be the end of this investigation,  American officials are keen to understand more about the logistics behind the movement of such fossils around the world.

To read about the seizure of the Tarbosaurus auction material: Seizing a Tyrannosaur.

In June 2010, the London International Art Fair had a strange item up for sale amongst the fine art and ceramics, it was the prepared skull of a Tarbosaurus.  It has been reported that this item was on sale for £125,000.  The skull came from a Dorset coast fossil dealer, British newspapers have enquired about this specimens’s whereabouts.

Scotland Yard have confirmed that its art and antiques unit had been contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice but insisted it was not currently investigating the case.

A spokeswoman commented:

“At this time no request for assistance has been made and there is no Metropolitan Police Service investigation.”

Investigations into alleged dinosaur fossil smuggling are likely to  continue with the Mongolian government seeking to have repatriated any Tarbosaurus fossil material that is found.

It is suspected that there is a substantial black market for fossil material, especially dinosaur fossils with very high prices, sometimes in excess of £500,000 being paid for rare specimens.  Fossils are smuggled out of countries and offered for sale via a network of dealers to wealthy private individuals.  Hopefully, the stiff sentence likely to be handed down to Mr Prokopi and the on-going investigation into fossil shipments from Mongolia will help deter others from such activities.

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