Dinosaur Dustup: Auctioneer, Mongolia Battle Over $1M Bones

PHOTO: An 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long tarbosaurus ? a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex ? is at the heart of legal battle between Heritage Auctions and the president of Mongolia.
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The skeleton of a dinosaur that roamed Earth nearly 80 million years ago and sold for more than $1 million this weekend is now the subject of a court battle between the well-known Heritage Auctions and the government of Mongolia.

On Sunday, the New York auction house sold the 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long Tarbosaurus -- a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex -- for $1,052,500 in New York to an unidentified buyer. The auction house did not identify the seller and said it did not know where the dinosaur had come from.

"It's one of the most extraordinary fossils we've sold. The condition is extraordinary. The completeness is extraordinary," said Greg Rohan, the auction house's president. "It entered the United States legally. Our lawyers aren't aware of any treaties between Mongolia and the United States that would prohibit the importation of dinosaurs."

Rohan said the seller had spent a year -- and a considerable amount of money -- restoring and preparing the dinosaur skeleton for auction. Rohan said he didn't know whether the auction house had sold items previously for the seller.

"He's a reputable person," he said. "[Heritage Auctions] has known him for some years. ... He warrantied to us that he has clear title to sell it."

Mongolia Wins U.S. Court Order

The dinosaur skeleton remains with Heritage Auctions in New York, however, pending the end of litigation brought by Robert Painter, a Houston attorney for Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia.

Painter said that because Mongolia was a hotbed for dinosaur bones and fossils -- as well as looting -- the country wanted the auction house to identify the seller and the dinosaur's origins.

Painter said that Mongolia's president learned of the auction Thursday from experts in the dinosaur field.

"There are a lot of dinosaur experts and paleontologists and museum people that say the only place where the dinosaur skeleton could have originated is Mongolia and the Gobi Desert," Painter told ABC News today. "[It's] the most fertile field for dinosaur skeletons in the world."

Painter said that Mongolia did not permit the import or sale of fossils and dinosaur bones and that looting at excavation sites was a big problem.

Dr. Mark Norell, chairman and curator for the division of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said that he'd worked in the Gobi Desert for 22 years in partnership with the Mongolian Academy of Science, a branch of the government. He wrote a letter to the Mongolian government informing officials about the auction and the criticism it had generated.

"We've seen very increasing and extreme evidence of looting," he told ABC News today. "Specimens are smuggled out of Mongolia. There is no legal mechanism to remove specimens from Mongolia. There hasn't been for decades."

He said that when he and other scientists found fossils or bones, they were catalogued before being loaned to the U.S. and other countries for study. He said that only a handful of Tarbosaurus specimens had been collected and that just a couple had been as complete as the Heritage Auctions dinosaur.

"This specimen," Norell said, "I'm 99 percent certain that it's from Mongolia. ... If there's a 1 percent chance that it's not from Mongolia, then it's from China."

He said that China was even stricter about the sale of its bones and fossils, making it "impossible to get this legally."

He said the Tarbosaurus skeleton was rare because of its completion but also because of the age of the bones. The Tarbosaurus was a juvenile, which makes it a gem to researchers trying to document dinosaurs' intermediate stages.

"Any time you find a dinosaur that's 75 percent complete, it's a spectacular find," he said. "Carnivores [like Heritage Auctions' dinosaur] are rarer in nature. They are closer to birds. Their bones are fragile and hollow and doubly hard to find. They don't make good fossils."

Dinosaur Skeleton 'a Spectacular Find'

Painter said that Mongolia had asked Heritage Auctions in a letter to share the seller's identity or how he or she had acquired the skeleton. He told ABC News that when Heritage Auctions declined to release the information, "it left us with the only choice to go to court to protect that treasure."

"If they could've cooperated informally and just shown conclusive proof that it was legally obtained, there wouldn't be a problem," he said.

Sale Pending Court Ruling

Rohan, Heritage Auctions' president, said that the court's restraining order was not enforceable in New York because even though the auction house's headquarters are in Texas, the wrong company had been issued the order.

He said that the dinosaur had been sold, but that Heritage Auctions would wait to have the court validate the sale.

"We're trying to be respectful [and] respect everyone," Rohan told ABC News today. "We want to be respectful to the scientific community. ... I think it's the only appropriate, professional thing to do. We're protecting ourselves, the consignor [the seller] and the buyer."

He did not know whether that would occur in New York or Texas. Painter, Mongolia's Texas lawyer, said the next hearing on the matter was scheduled for June 1.

Painter, who attended Sunday's auction and tried to stop it, said he believed the dinosaur had originated in Mongolia. He told ABC News that this was the first time that he knew of Mongolia filing a court order to halt the sale of a dinosaur specimen.

"We want to send a message that Mongolia is serious about protecting its cultural heritage," he said. "The president's feeling is that if this originated in Mongolia and improperly taken out, it needs to be returned to the people of Mongolia."

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