It was late on Friday, May 18, when Robert Painter, a Houston lawyer, received an email from office of the Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. "It was a very unusual thing," Painter told the TM Daily Post. "A query about a Tyrannosaurus skeleton."
President Elbegdorj was concerned about a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar slated for auction in New York on May 20. The Tyrannosaurus bataar, a close relative of the T. rex, has only been unearthed in the Nemegt Basin in the Mongolia's Gobi Desert, and the Mongolian government believed this specimen had been smuggled out of the country. (Under Mongolian law dating back to the 1920s, fossils belong to the Mongolian people.)
Earlier that week, Elbegdorj, through a representative of the Mongolian government, had asked Dallas-based Heritage Auctions to delay the sale of the dinosaur until its ownership could be determined. When they declined to address his concerns, he turned to Painter for help. Painter worked quickly, tracking down Carlos Cortez, a district court judge in Dallas County, on a Saturday to sign a temporary injunction blocking the sale. The auction "may cause irreparable harm and injury to the Plaintiff because the skeleton is inherently unique and irreplaceable, and if it issold to a bona fide purchaser, it will likely to unable to be recovered by Plaintiff," Cortez wrote.
But, that Sunday, Heritage Auctions proceeded with the auction anyway, and it sold the specimen to an anonymous buyer for $1,052,500, Russ Buettner reported in the New York Times on Wednesday. A day after the sale, the auction house agreed to await the outcome of the legal investigation before transferring the skeleton. (A spokesman for Heritage Auctions told the Times the auction house believed the seller had "purchased the fossils in good faith.")
Paleontological experts tapped by the Mongolian government were allowed to inspect the Tyrannosaurus on June 5, and determined that it had likely been smuggled out of Mongolia in the last ten years. The chemicals used to treat the bones indicated the dinosaur had been unearthed not by professional paleontologists but by fossil poachers.
While the dinosaur may have spent its entire life in the Nemegt Basin, it has become quite the globetrotter in recent years. After leaving Mongolia, the skeleton surfaced in Japan, where it was bought by a "commercial paleontologist" and shipped to Dorset, England, Painter said. (But the buyer was unable to produce any documentation detailing who he had purchased the fossil from, Painter said. Presumably, when you buy something as big and expensive as a Tyrannosaurus, you ask for a receipt.) It was imported to Florida in 2010, but the customs forms filed did not tell the skeleton's whole story. Instead, they said that the bones belonged to a "fossil reptile" and valued them at $15,000. The dinosaur then made its way to Dallas before winding up in New York for the auction.
This Monday, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York entered the fray, filing a complaint titled United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton , seeking forfeiture of the fossil and its return to the Mongolian government.
How did President Elbegdorj know to call Painter about the case? Well, Painter and Elbegdorj at a conference in 2003, when Elbegdorj, then Mongolia's former prime minister, was enrolled in a program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for former heads of state, Painter recounted. The pair hit it off, and Painter invited him to Houston to speak at a continuing legal education conference and later arranged a meeting between Elbegdorj and former Secretary of State James A. Baker.
Over the last ten years, Painter has made twenty trips to Mongolia to represent American clients in Mongolian mining deals. (Mongolia's mining sector has seen so much growth in recent years that the country has earned the moniker "Mine-golia," NPR's Frank Langfitt reported in his four-part series on Mongolia's mining sector last month.)
"But I've never had any litigation involving a dinosaur before," Painter said. He said hopes that as a result of this case, fossil dealers and auction houses will learn that "it's a good idea to cooperate when a foreign head of state asks about something that you have listed for sale."
At Wired in May, Brian Switek gave some background on the problem of stolen fossils:
Fossil theft is a major problem. It can happen anywhere, but dinosaur poaching is especially persistent and pernicious in China and Mongolia. Prime specimens are regularly ripped from the rock to be sold to private individuals elsewhere around the world, all against the heritage laws meant to regulate the responsible collection and curation of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. (In 2009, the United States government returned to China a cache of fossils that had been stolen from that country.) As explained to me by paleontologist and Mongolian Academy of Sciences representative Bolortsetseg Minjin, Mongolia only grants permission for fossil collection to reputable scientific establishments. “Anything against that is illegal,” she said. And excavated fossils either remain in Mongolia, or, with the permission of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, may be studied and displayed elsewhere under temporary loans.