Disputed Dino Skeleton Returned to Mongolia

The Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton became the center of an international legal dispute after it was sold at auction for more than $1 million.

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Eric Thayer / REUTERS

Officials are seen with a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton during a ceremony in New York City marking the fossil's repatriation to Mongolia on May 6, 2013

A dinosaur skeleton from the Mongolian desert that was allegedly smuggled into the U.S. is finally going home.

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The fossilized remains of an 8-ft.-tall, 24-ft.-long Tyrannosaurus bataar (a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex that lived around 70 million years ago) became the center of an international legal dispute after it was sold at a U.S. auction in 2012 for more than $1 million.

The battle to bring the disputed skeleton home — a tale described to LiveScience as a “a cross between Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes” by Ann Altman, an American who helped the Mongolians reclaim the bones — began almost a year ago when the Mongolian government recognized that the nearly complete set of fossils, which were being offered for sale by an auction house in New York City, were from a species found only in a certain rock formation in Mongolia. According to local law, fossils discovered in Mongolia belong to the nation and its people, and cannot be exported — although specimens from Mongolia often turn up for sale in the U.S., notes Fox News.

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A joint U.S.-Mongolian investigation concluded that the skeleton had been stolen from the Gobi Desert between 1995 and 2005, and the Mongolian President appealed directly to the U.S. authorities for its return. The investigations led to Eric Propoki, a 38-year-old man from Gainesville, Fla., described as “a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils” who had imported the Tyrannosaurus bataar bones into the U.S. via Britain before assembling them into a skeleton and offering them for sale. He was arrested and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy, the fraudulent transfer of the bones and making false statements to customs authorities, according to the Associated Press. He also agreed to give up a number of other dinosaur remains from Mongolia as well as one specimen from China, writes the AP. He now faces up to 17 years in jail as well as a $250,000 fine.

“We are very pleased to have played a pivotal role in returning Mongolia’s million-dollar baby,” said federal prosecutor Preet Bharara during the official handover ceremony in New York City on May 6, as Agence France-Presse reports. Bharara added, “Of course, that million-dollar price tag, as high as it is, doesn’t begin to describe the true value of an ancient artifact that is part of the fabric of a country’s natural history and cultural heritage.”

The skeleton will now travel to Mongolia, where it will be displayed in a new dinosaur museum in the capital Ulan Bator.

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