Psst … Hey, Buddy, You Wanna Buy a Dinosaur?

The state of the universe.
Jan. 9 2013 4:45 AM

The Million-Dollar Dinosaur Scandal

Meet the crooks, smugglers, and counterfeiters who run the most brazen fossil scams.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Fossils are priceless. I mean that in both senses: They are invaluable clues about vanished lives, and their worth should never be measured in dollars. But Eric Prokopi made quite a bit of money dealing fossils and, as it turns out, brazenly smuggling them. He recently pled guilty to conspiracy, making false statements to customs officials, illegally importing fossils into the United States, and fraudulent transfer of dinosaur bones. He is set to be sentenced in April and faces up to 17 years in prison. Prokopi’s string of fossil offenses was finally exposed in the past few months because of a dinosaur that was almost sold for $1 million. His story is one of the most egregious cases of dinosaur rustling in recent years, and it shows just how corrupt and harmful to science the fossil market can be.

The ugly tale began when Texas-based Heritage Auctions put out a catalog for a May 20 event in New York City. The lots included an ankylosaur skull, a troodontid skeleton, and the hyped star of the sale, a “75 percent complete” Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton. This tyrannosaur, which roamed Mongolia about 70 million years ago, was comparable in size and ferocity to its famous cousin Tyrannosaurus rex. (The auction ads took advantage of a taxonomic disagreement among paleontologists and called the fossil Tyrannosaurus bataar, but I’m in the camp that believes these dinosaurs should be kept in distinct genera.)

It seemed the dinosaur was going to slip away into a private collection. For years, paleontologists have watched as significant specimens have gone from field sites to wealthy fossil enthusiasts. Some researchers have even had dinosaurs stolen right out from under them, finding their carefully-excavated quarries turned to shambles littered with cigarette butts, booze bottles, and broken bones.

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There are legitimate dealers who abide by laws on collecting, importing, and selling fossils, but you’ll always find questionable specimens from China, Brazil, Morocco, and other locations if you visit a fossil or mineral show. What’s on display is only the tip of the iceberg. The real action at places like the annual Tuscon Gem and Mineral Show is behind closed doors in private hotel rooms, where sellers save their fanciest—and most illicit—deals for customers they feel they can trust. Countries around the world have passed laws that make it difficult to sell dinosaurs and other fossils legally, but dealers keep finding new ways around the laws, and the black market thrives. Even dealers who keep their noses clean almost never contribute anything to science—they treat fossils as petrified postage stamps to be hoarded, traded, and sold off.

Whoever had collected the Tarbosaurus had stripped away almost everything of scientific importance about the animal: how the bones were scattered in the rock where they were found, what preparations were used to clean and reassemble the skeleton, what other fossils were in the same or nearby layers. But paleontologists were certain that the dinosaur came from the Cretaceous rock of Mongolia. This is the only place in the world where Tarbosaurus skeletons are found in great numbers, and the dinosaur’s off-white bones were the same color as other dinosaur remains found in the Gobi Desert.

There was no reasonable doubt that the Tarbosaurus had been stolen. China and Mongolia strictly regulate who is allowed to launch dinosaur expeditions and collect fossils and where those specimens must be reposited. There was no legal route by which the dinosaur could have ended up in a New York City auction. Days before it was set to be sold, paleontologists and the president of Mongolia objected to the auction. Paleontologist Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History, who has worked extensively in Mongolia, pointed out that the dinosaur must be an illicit specimen from the Gobi Desert. According to Mongolian heritage laws, any recovered bones must ultimately rest within an approved Mongolian institution. (The AMNH itself made an international faux pas when it auctioned off a Mongolian dinosaur egg in 1924.)

Heritage Auctions pooh-poohed the concerns and affirmed that the auction house trusted the dealer it was working with. Greg Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions, steadfastly defended the auction, whining that it was too close to the date of the auction to do anything about the complaints of the Mongolian government and concerned researchers. Lawyers working in concert with the Mongolian government entered the kerfuffle and demanded that the auction be halted until the provenance of the skeleton could be settled.

The auction went ahead as scheduled. In the middle of the bidding, a lawyer announced that he had on the phone a judge who had issued an order against the sale. Even this last-minute tactic didn’t stop the bidding. The final price of the Tarbosaurus was just over $1 million.

Fortunately, the unknown buyer couldn’t simply walk off with the dinosaur. Investigations continued, now with the begrudging assistance of Heritage Auctions, and Norell and other paleontologists confirmed that the tyrannosaur must have been uncovered in Mongolia. More than that, what was billed as a nearly complete individual animal turned out to be made of several different dinosaurs. (Surprise, surprise, the smuggler wasn’t honest about his wares. Many dinosaurs that appear at auction houses are not as complete or well-preserved as they might appear to the untrained eye.)