When a Mongolian paleontologist sees a dinosaur skeleton illegally up for auction in the United States, she goes to great lengths to stop the sale.
BOLORTESTEG MINJIN (Paleontologist): You know, since 1920s, all fossils been found from Mongolia left the country. Either for research, or illegally—stolen.
PETER GWIN (HOST): Bolortsetseg Minjin is a Mongolian paleontologist. Eight years ago, she saw something on TV that really made her mad.
MINJIN: I saw local news in New York sitting in a coffee shop and showing this dinosaur, but they turned off the volume. I couldn't tell. I just assumed, Oh, maybe that's another new species of dinosaur. But then it looked Mongolian. So then I went home, and I search on Google. Then I found the image. And then that led me to auction house's website.
GWIN: The auction house that was selling the dinosaur. It was a 24-foot skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a toothy monster similar to T. rex that’s only ever been found in Mongolia. It shouldn’t have been for sale.
MINJIN: Then find out that this dinosaur is going to be auctioned in three days for almost for a million dollar. So it was...
GWIN: Wait a minute, it was going to be auctioned for a million dollars?
MINJIN: Yes. So I quickly wrote a email to Mongolia. We have to stop this auction.
GWIN: And the Mongolian government replied. The office of the president issued a press release protesting the auction and asked Bolor to do whatever she could to stop it. At first she tried contacting the auction house, but a lawyer there replied saying the auction would go forward.
MINJIN: So I quickly wrote, emailed back to president's office, said, OK, we need a lawyer. I can’t stop this.
GWIN: So the president of Mongolia reached out to a lawyer he had met at a conference in the United States. A guy named Robert Painter, who specializes in medical malpractice in Texas. Robert had helped the president as an adviser, but he’d never gone to court for Mongolia before.
ROBERT PAINTER (ATTORNEY): First time it was on my radar that there was even such a thing as a dinosaur auction, let alone one with questionable provenance, let alone one where I was being asked to, you know, do something legally to stop it.
GWIN: But he was just as prepared as anyone. As far as Robert could tell, a dinosaur fossil had never been legally returned to another country from the United States. And he was about to file a lawsuit that would change that. I’m Peter Gwin, and you’re listening to Overheard at National Geographic: A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo—and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week: the first victory in the struggle to repatriate stolen fossils. More after this.
GWIN: It was a Friday night when Texas lawyer Robert Painter got an email from the office of the president of Mongolia: Could he do anything to stop the auction of a dinosaur skeleton in New York? The auction was just two days away.
PAINTER: The first thing I thought was—’cause it was a little after 6 p.m.—I thought, Boy, it would have been really nice to hear about this a couple hours ago, when the courts were still open. You know, from a lawyer’s perspective, it’s like, well, I need to get a judge. And where am I going to find a judge? It's, you know, after six o'clock on a Friday.
GWIN: Even though the auction was happening in New York City, it just so happened that the auction house was headquartered in Dallas. This is key because Robert has a license to practice law in Texas. But Robert lives in Houston, and he needed a Dallas judge to sign a temporary restraining order. So he asked a friend in Dallas to help him find a judge.
PAINTER: He called and said, Hey, Judge, I want to let you know my buddy from law school has a dinosaur auction, and the president of Mongolia wants it stopped and we need a TRO hearing—the restraining order hearing—and Judge Cortez hung up the phone. So when Kurt called him back. He said, Judge, did you hang up? He said, Quit pranking me, it's Friday night. He said, No, no, Judge, this is real. And so he said, Oh, OK. Well, yeah, have him come by at 10 or 11 or I forget what time. And he called me back, and we’re all good to go.
GWIN: There was a lot to do before Robert could meet with the judge. For one thing, the relevant laws needed to be translated from Mongolian to English.
PAINTER: In the U.S. legal system, you need evidence that's notarized, and it was already a Saturday in Mongolia and I was talking to the president's chief of staff and I said, We need this notarized. And he said, Well, we don't really do that. And I said, OK, well, can you—what can we do to make this official? And we decided just—I said, Just grab some seals, get the seal of state, or the president's seal. Start putting these seals on it to show this is official, this is legitimate.
GWIN: Notarized or not, these Mongolian laws had been on the books for almost 100 years.
PAINTER: It turns out that since Mongolia has been a free country, in the early 20th century, that they've had these laws that defined dinosaur fossils, among other things, as property of the government.
GWIN: Although it had never been used in the U.S. before, the Mongolian dinosaur law was created in part because of the actions of another American.
MICHAEL GRESHKO (WRITER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC): I mean, this is not the first Mongolian dinosaur that's ever been auctioned off in the United States. These kinds of transactions had happened before.
GWIN: Michael Greshko is a writer on our science desk who covers dinosaurs.
GRESHKO: Mongolia is not a good place to find dinosaur bone—Mongolia is a great place to find dinosaur bone. Anybody who's watched Jurassic Park knows the name Velociraptor. Velociraptor is Mongolian. Protoceratops is Mongolian. And then there's also tyrannosaurids, this family of predatory dinosaurs.
GWIN: You mean like Tyrannosaurus?
GRESHKO: Like Tyrannosaurus. Yeah, not T. rex. T. rex is North American, but very close cousins, including Tyrannosaurus bataar, also known as Tarbosaurus bataar.
GWIN: That’s the type of dinosaur that was for sale at the auction house. These bones come from the Gobi desert. The Gobi is twice the size of Texas, so it isn’t too surprising that paleontologists didn’t know the dinosaurs were there until about a century ago.
GWIN: Who was the first place to sort of like show up there and go, wait a minute, this place is filled with dinosaurs?
GRESHKO: Right. So in large part, we have to thank an American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews.
GWIN: Roy Chapman Andrews was a real Indiana Jones type. In fact, some people say Harrison Ford’s character was based on him.
GRESHKO: He's best known for a series of expeditions that he directed in Mongolia that are known as the Central Asiatic Expeditions.
GWIN: And on these expeditions Andrews found a lot of fossils, including the first dinosaur eggs. At the time, scientists were dying to know if dinosaurs laid eggs. And Andrews found entire nests of them. Some even contained visible embryos.
GRESHKO: Those eggs made a huge global splash when they were first announced in the early 1920s and made Andrews about as big as a celebrity as you could be at the time.
GWIN: Andrews knew there were more discoveries to be made in Central Asia and he wanted to return. But to get back to the Gobi desert, he needed to raise millions of dollars. So he came up with an idea.
GRESHKO: So one of the things he did was he took one of the 25 to 30 dinosaur eggs that they had collected and had an idea to auction it off.
GWIN: And so the first Mongolian dinosaur fossil was auctioned off in the United States.
GRESKO: The winning bid—$5,000—was from a guy named Austin Colgate, who was a vice president of the Colgate Company. He then turned around and donated that egg to Colgate University, and it's there to this day.
GWIN: But the auction backfired. To the Mongolian government, Andrews’s trips seemed like they were more focused on profit than discovery.
GRESHKO: He himself, you know, kind of rued the day he came up with this. He wrote that “I was very pleased, but it proved to be a boomerang. Nothing else so disastrous ever happened to the expedition. Up to this time, the Chinese and Mongols had taken us at face value. Now they thought we were making money out of our explorations. We had found about 30 eggs. If one was worth $5,000, the whole lot must be valued at 150,000.” The second that you put a dollar price on a fossil, the second you create all sorts of perverse incentives around science. And that push and pull has been with paleontology ever since.
GWIN: The egg was auctioned off in 1924.
GRESHKO: Later that year, Mongolia becomes the second communist country. There's a revolution in Mongolia, and they put together a new constitution. And that constitution specifies that Mongolia's fossils, its paleontological heritage, belong to the people of Mongolia. And from that time to now, it has been illegal to export Mongolian fossils from Mongolia.
GWIN: And now, almost a century later, those laws were about to be tested for the first time in the United States. After getting them translated, lawyer Robert Painter asked the judge to intervene—the day before the auction.
PAINTER: And by 10 or 11 a.m., I'm sitting in the judge's kitchen with him going over the petition and the evidence that we put together overnight, including having everything translated from Mongolian. And you know, fortunately, the judge found that to be persuasive and he just granted our TRO.
GWIN: TRO, a temporary restraining order to stop the auction while the courts decided what to do. Robert sent copies to the auction house in every way he could think of.
PAINTER: So I find all their emails and fax numbers and send them a copy of the restraining order. And then I thought, you know, I need to babysit this. So I got a colleague in my office who does video work and things, and we hopped on a flight, went straight to New York, then the next morning met with some Mongolian folks, and then headed straight over to the auction that morning, Sunday morning.
GWIN: The dinosaur wasn’t the only thing for sale that day. There were gemstones and elephant tusks, ancient insects suspended in amber, even the skull of another Mongolian dinosaur, but Robert was there to stop the sale of the biggest item up for auction.
PAINTER: They had the whole Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton fully assembled. And he was kind of towering over the whole auction watching.
GWIN: And then one of Robert’s colleagues overheard some staff talking about the restraining order.
PAINTER: So we overheard a call. This guy was speaking to someone, and said, Yeah, we're gonna go forward with the auction despite the order.
GWIN: Ever hear the phrase “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission”?
PAINTER: The thinking is that if someone bought it and didn't know that the ownership was disputed, then they could be a good-faith buyer, and there could be maybe some legal argument that they shouldn't have to give it up, because they bought and paid for it and didn't know about the dispute. So that's what we wanted to avoid.
GWIN: He had to do something to stop the auction, but he wasn’t quite sure what. And then the bidding started.
PAINTER: So I'm seated there. And I told my colleague from Houston, I want you to have your video camera ready, and mic and everything, because I want to capture this video.
[Auction sound begins]
PAINTER: As the auction begins, I get my phone, redial the judge real quick. Say, Judge, I'm at the auction and they are now proceeding to auction. Can you talk to them and explain that this violates your order? He said sure. So I stand up. And have the phone with the judge in it in my right hand, and I say, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I have the judge from such-and-such court on the phone, and he wants to explain how this auction is violating a temporary restraining order. So the guy on the stage with the phone starts running toward me. He comes toward me, and he's kind of worked up and he want—he says, you know, We need to go to the back, go to the back. So we do. Meanwhile, the auctioneer just keeps going on like nothing's happening. So the guy on the phone bids and—sold. That's how it goes.
GWIN: But the bidder didn’t collect the bones. There was still a temporary restraining order. And Robert was moving forward with the Mongolian president’s lawsuit against the auction house.
GWIN: But the next day, a federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York called. Her office wanted to take over the effort to recover the fossil. So Robert dropped the Texas case and a new federal lawsuit took its place:
PAINTER: United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar. So the United States is actually filing a lawsuit where a party to the lawsuit is a fossilized dinosaur.
GWIN: And that’s not all.
PAINTER: So we actually flew back up to New York and watched them go and arrest—the FBI arrested the dinosaur—and took him into custody.
GWIN: The skeleton stayed in federal custody until it finally got its day in court several months later. With a team of other paleontologists, Bolor Minjin had inspected the fossil and determined that it was definitely from Mongolia. In record time, the skeleton was on its way back home.
PAINTER: This was the first time ever that a dino—ever—that a dinosaur has been repatriated anywhere, let alone Mongolia. It was quite a feat.
GWIN: It was the first time, but not the last. Since then, there have been more than 50 dinosaur fossils repatriated to Mongolia. But Nat Geo writer Michael Greshko says black-market fossils are still being sold throughout the world.
GRESHKO: China formally, on the books, has laws preventing the export of fossils. A few years ago, I was in a museum in Europe. They were selling a Chinese dinosaur egg in the gift shop.
GWIN: Wait a minute, you could have bought that? You could’ve just rolled up there and bought it?
GRESHKO: I could have just rolled up there and bought it, and that—I was shocked when I saw it in there because the second I saw it, I knew it was hot. There is no way that that egg left the country legally.
GWIN: Wow. So, I mean, if this is happening in European gift shops, I mean, that's pretty pervasive then, you would imagine. Right?
GRESHKO: Yeah. This is a, I mean, it's a huge global trade.
GWIN: And that trade gets in the way of science. When fossils are dug up for profit, they’re often altered in ways that make it difficult for scientists to study them later.
GRESHKO: Poachers have come through paleontological sites and just… who come through with pick axes and basically work their way up a skeleton to find the skull. The skull is really valuable. And then if the skull breaks or whatever, then you just destroy the skull and you pull the teeth and claws because those sell.
GWIN: This sort of destruction is one of the reasons why paleontologist Bolor Minjin keeps working to repatriate fossils to Mongolia.
MINJIN: I don’t know, I've been doing now so long that it's almost become a job for me.
GWIN: When a Mongolian dinosaur fossil is recovered, it ends up in a warehouse, like this one in Queens, where Bolor and a small team carefully package it up for the long flight back to Mongolia.
MINJIN: So we have 10 dinosaur specimens.
GWIN: Ten dinosaur specimens that weren’t always treated very well before they were recovered.
MINJIN: And this specific dinosaur skull had five teeth been broken.
GWIN: Bolor’s sending the specimens to the Natural History Museum of Mongolia. She hopes that they will inspire the next generation of Mongolian paleontologists.
MINJIN: It’s not a thing you go to mall to purchase with money. It's a heritage, and generation to generation, we're supposed to, you know, share this heritage and knowledge. It's a part of Earth history. It's not just Mongolian. It's actually for the rest of the world.
GWIN: We can’t make new fossils. So if we don’t protect the ones we have, who will? More after this.
Want to know how that Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton got into the United States in the first place? Well, you can find out about the entrepreneur from Florida who went to jail for smuggling by clicking on a link to the story in our show notes.
Bolor Minjin once took a Winnebago filled with dinosaur exhibits off-road, across the Gobi desert. Read more about her work with the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs through its website.
And who buys a dinosaur skeleton anyway? Nat Geo subscribers can take a look behind the scenes of some private collections. All of this and more can be found in our show notes. Look for them in your podcast app.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Laura Sim.
Our editor is Ibby Caputo.
Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin.
Thanks for listening. Stay safe out there, and we’ll see y’all soon.
Read about the latest discoveries in paleontology, such as the T.Rex’s survival strategy for when food was scarce.
Find out about the entrepreneur from Florida who went to jail for smuggling Mongolian fossils.
Learn about the two leading theories for why dinosaurs went extinct in the first place.
Watch the final return of the fossil that was auctioned off in New York to Bolor Minjin and other representatives of the Mongolian government.
Bolor once took a Winnebago filled with dinosaur exhibits off-road, across the Gobi. Read more about how she’s helping to educate Mongolians about paleontology at The Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs.
And for paid subscribers:
Take a look behind the scenes at the private collectors who are buying dinosaur bones.
Bones are the most common type of dinosaur fossil, but in the right conditions, scales and even skin can be preserved. See pictures of a petrified nodosaur on our website.
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