Making a Federal Case: U.S. Attorney Seeks Seizure and Forfeiture of Mongolian Tyrannosaurus Skeleton

Since last month’s auction-gone-wrong, a near-complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton valued at over a million dollars has been sitting in crates at Cadogan Tate, an art storage facility in Sunnyside, Queens, protected by a temporary restraining order. The origin of the skeleton was contested by expert paleontologists and the president of Mongolia himself—they suspected looting, and wanted the bones returned home.

Today, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a joint investigation with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that they had filed a civil complaint in Manhattan Federal Court seeking seizure and forfeiture of the skeleton so it can be returned to Mongolia.

The complaint alleges that the skeleton was imported into the U.S. improperly. Importation documents from March of 2010 (when the consignor of the bones brought them to the states) incorrectly described the contents of the boxes containing the skeleton (a sampling: “…broken fossil bones, three rough fossil reptiles, one fossil lizard…”) and underreported their value (listing it at $15,000, when it was listed in an auction catalog at a starting price of $950,000 and ended up selling for $1,052,500).

The complaint also contains expert opinions from prominent paleontologists who examined the skeleton in an inspection on June 5 and concluded that the skeleton was from Mongolia, which prohibits the removal of such fossils. (Among them was Dr. Philip J. Currie, whose Wikipedia page asserts that he was “one of the models for paleontologist Alan Grant in the film Jurassic Park.”)

After the origin of the skeleton was called into question, a cooperative investigation was launched by Heritage Auctions, the auction house representing the consignor, and Robert Painter, a lawyer representing Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the president of Mongolia.

Jim Halperin, co-chair and co-founder of Heritage Auctions, told The Observer through a spokesman, “We haven’t seen the lawsuit yet so it would be inappropriate to comment.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Cohen Levin—who happens to be the sister of writer and Vanity Fair contributing editor Rich Cohen—will be handling the case. Making a Federal Case: U.S. Attorney Seeks Seizure and Forfeiture of Mongolian Tyrannosaurus Skeleton