Stop the Tarbosaurus Auction!

Tomorrow, a tyrannosaur will go up for auction in New York City. It shouldn’t. The Tarbosauruslot 49315 – was illegally collected and smuggled out of Mongolia.

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.

There is no doubt the Tarbosaurus in question came from Mongolia. All the major Tarbosaurus specimens we know of have been found there. And, according to the specimen’s official description, “The dino was discovered within the past decade and has been in storage in England, still in its field jackets, for the last 2-1/2 years.”  Mongolia had fossil collection regulations a decade ago, just as they do today, and the fact that this undocumented specimen went from the field to a private collection outside Mongolia is a sure sign that the specimen was illegally collected and smuggled elsewhere.

The tyrannosaur – as well as a set of several other Mongolian dinosaur specimens – was scheduled for auction several weeks ago. During the past forty eight hours, Mongolian officials and paleontologists have been rallying to stop the auction. Elbegdorj Tsakhia, president of Mongolia, issued a statement yesterday questioning the details of how the Tarbosaurus was collected. If the dinosaur really was discovered in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, the statement noted, “President Elbegdorj Tsakhia said that it was illegal to auction the T-Rex and the fossil must be returned to Mongolia.” And American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Mark Norell, who is an expert on Mongolia’s dinosaurs and has frequently excavated fossils there, wrote a letter to Heritage Auctions affirming that the Mongolian dinosaurs slated for auction were almost certainly excavated illegally:

In the current catalogue Lot 49317 (a skull of Saichania) and Lot 49315 (a mounted Tarbosaurus skeleton) clearly were excavated in Mongolia as this is the only locality in the world where these dinosaurs are known. The copy listed in the catalogue, while not mentioning Mongolia specifically (the locality is listed as Central Asia) repeatedly makes reference to the Gobi Desert and to the fact that other specimens of dinosaurs were collected in Mongolia. As someone who is intimately familiar with these faunas, these specimens were undoubtedly looted from Mongolia. There is no legal mechanism (nor has there been for over 50 years) to remove vertebrate fossil material from Mongolia. These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia. As a professional paleontologist, am appalled that these illegally collected specimens (with no associated documents regarding provenance) are being sold at auction. [You can see the entire letter at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.]

Other paleontologists, volunteers, and concerned parties have been adding their signatures to an online petition to stop the auction, created by paleontologist Neil Kelley. These dinosaurs do not belong in someone’s mansion or at a corporate headquarters. They should be returned to their country of origin. “If we can succeed, the best thing for those specimens is to go back to the country. That’s who they belong to,” Minjin said.

But Heritage Auctions may not budge. When I asked Minjin if the auction house showed any sign of cooperating with the Mongolian government, she said that their response “wasn’t really encouraging.” Now that several statements from Heritage Auctions have been published, I can see what she means.

The president of Heritage Auctions, Greg Rohan, wrote a snippy letter in response to the online petition trying to save the dinosaur for science. “You should all be aware that this auction has been publicicized [sic] broadly for 4 weeks,” Rohan wrote “and the Mongolian Governments request issued today less than 48 hours before the auction is unreasonable and inappropriate.” As if the timing of the protest has anything to do with whether the dinosaurs were obtained illegally or not. And, strangely, Rohan claims that the Tarbosaurus was discovered at a different time than what the auction’s official listing states. While the dinosaur’s description is clear that the tyrannosaur was excavated “within the past decade”, Rohan claimed that “Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that.” That’s quite a discrepancy, and I have no reason to take Rohan’s word for it. Based on what the official documents state – and the fact that no one even knew that tyrannosaurs existed in the Gobi until Tarbosaurus was described in 1955 – the dinosaur in question was undoubtedly collected during a time when Mongolia’s heritage laws were already in place.

Frustratingly, despite the fact that the Mongolian dinosaurs were illegally acquired and transported, other countries do not necessarily have laws forbidding the import or sale of fossils that have been improperly obtained. The excavation of transport of the Tarbosaurus was illegal, but, now that the dinosaur is here, the dinosaur’s sale might be legal. And Heritage Auctions has not been swayed by the appeals of the Mongolian government and the scientific community. In a statement to Dan Vergano’s Science Fair blog at USA Today, lawyer Carl Soller – who represents Heritage Auctions – said that there appeared to be no legal boundaries to the dinosaur’s auction tomorrow. “Our client has no reason to believe that any laws enforced by the United States have been violated,” Soller said, “and we are unaware that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia.” The auction is still on.

Whether or not the dinosaur was looted seems irrelevant to Heritage Auctions. They want to keep their centerpiece for tomorrow’s auction – a tyrannosaur they expect to go for about a million dollars. And the company seems unmoved by the implication that such sales only fuel the impression that dinosaurs can rake in massive amounts of cash – a perception that gives more impetus to poachers and thieves who trash field sites for specimens which wind up as status symbols for celebrities.

The Tarbosaurus, Saichania, and other Mongolian dinosaur specimens should be pulled from auction. Rohan’s statement that it is “unreasonable and inappropriate” to protest the auction is a loathsome and limp response. The timing of the objection is irrelevant. These fossils were illegally collected, and auctioning them off only fuels additional criminal activity. To put the dinosaurs on the block tomorrow would be a completely reprehensible action by Heritage Auctions, and I don’t believe that it would be all that difficult to pull the controversial specimens from the schedule.

Fossil poaching is a major threat to paleontology, and robs scientifically-significant specimens from everyone. Speak out against the auction. Sign the petition calling for a stop to the dinosaur auctions, and email Heritage Auctions via These dinosaurs are part of Mongolia’s natural history, and that of our planet. They should be treated as such, and not as home decor for the affluent.

UPDATE (5/19/2012):

I just received the following press release, courtesy of Painter Law Firm PLLC, which states that the auction of the Tarbosaurus specimen will be halted thanks to a temporary restraining order. I have asked for more details on the fate of the other Mongolian dinosaur fossils due to go up for auction tomorrow, and will update this post as I find out more.

Judge Issues Restraining Order Stopping Sale of Possibly-Smuggled Mongolian Dinosaur

The Honorable Carlos Cortez, a Dallas, Texas district court judge, granted a “Temporary Restraining Order” (TRO), after an application by Houston attorney Robert Painter, legal counsel for His Excellency Elbegdorj Tsakhia, President of Mongolia.

The TRO prevents Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, Inc. from selling a rare national treasure that paleontology and dinosaur experts believe may have been illegally removed from Mongolia.

The emergency TRO was issued Saturday morning to stop a New York City auction tomorrow of the dinosaur remains to a private buyer in New York City. At issue is an extremely rare near-complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, a cousin of the North American T-Rex.

This is not the first time that looters have desecrated excavation sites.  However, this sale is particularly unique.  It is of grave concern to officials in Mongolia that Heritage Auctions, Inc. has declined requests to disclose the owner and provenance, or to answer questions about whether the dinosaur was illegally smuggled out of Mongolia.  Further, it is rare for a near-complete and mounted dinosaur body, at 24-foot long and 8-feet tall, to be sold as a whole unit.

Mongolia is particularly vulnerable to looters taking advantage of the country.  Because of the country’s expansive size, it is very difficult to secure all excavation sites.

When President Elbegdorj learned of this imminent auction, he knew that he had to take action to preserve Mongolia’s history, culture and treasures.

Attorney Painter said, “The temporary restraining order preserves the status quo, while the true ownership of the Tyrannosaurus bataar is legally proven and decided in court. President Elbegdorj was wise to use this legal procedure to protect the interests of the Mongolian people.”

The auction house was served with the TRO on Saturday afternoon. Robert Painter will be in New York City for the auction to ensure that Heritage Auctions, Inc. complies with the TRO terms.

UPDATE (5/20/2012):

Heritage Auctions sold the Tarbosaurus skeleton today. According to the official press release, the dinosaur was sold for over one million dollars. (I do not know what happened to the skull of Saichania, or the other dinosaur fossils for sale.) But the dinosaur isn’t going home with anyone yet. Heritage Auctions says the sale is “conditional” and “will be contingent upon resolution of a court proceeding.” There’s still some hope that the dinosaur may be returned to its proper home in Mongolia.

I also received the following press release from Painter Law Firm PLLC, which provides some additional detail about the “event” referred to in the Heritage Auctions post:

Sale of Tyrannosaurus Fossil in New York Today Delayed By President of Mongolia

New York, NY – Today, the sale of a dinosaur skeleton believed to be a Mongolian national treasure – a 24-foot-long, 8-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus fossil – was put on hold by legal action taken by the President of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia.  Houston attorney Robert Painter filed a lawsuit in a Texas district court on behalf of the President enjoining the sale and transfer of the huge fossil until legal ownership and proper provenance is proven in court.  A Texas judge signed a temporary restraining order that ordered Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, Inc. to halt the sale of the fossil that experts believe was smuggled out of Mongolia.

Officials with Heritage Auctions were served with the temporary restraining order (TRO) late Saturday and today in New York, both before and during the auction. A copy of the original petition and TRO can be found at this link:

When this particular lot came up for auction today, the Heritage Auctions, Inc. auctioneer read a statement, “The sale of this next lot will be contingent on a satisfactory resolution of a court proceeding dealing with this matter.”

At that point, attorney Robert Painter got Judge Carlos Cortez, of the 44th District Court of Dallas County, Texas, who signed the TRO, on his cell phone.  Painter stood up at the auction, and stated that the judge was on the telephone and that going forward with the auction, even contingent on the court proceeding, would violate the TRO.

Heritage Auctions, Inc. President Greg Rohan rushed toward Painter, refused to speak with Judge Cortez, asked Painter to leave the room and directed that the auction proceed.

Painter said, “I am very surprised that Heritage Auctions, Inc. knowingly defied a valid court order, particularly with the judge on the phone, listening and ready to explain his order.  It makes me wonder if that Heritage Auctions, Inc. has a similar disregard for the property laws that protect antiquities, like the Tyrannosaurus fossil, that they attempt to auction.”

“I applaud President Elbegdorj for taking swift action to oppose the sale of this important Mongolian national treasure, and to make sure that it is not transferred to anyone until its ownership is verified in court,” said Texas-based Ed Story, Honorary Consul General of Mongolia. “His leadership in protecting the cultural heritage of the Mongolian people was on display again today in New York, thousands of miles away from Mongolia.”

Painter added, “This is a victory not only for the people of Mongolia who are one step closer to proving the true ownership of this important dinosaur, but also for the important friendship between the people of United States and Mongolia.”

According to the Daily Mail newspaper, this 80 million year old fossil was found in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in 2005. A team of UK and American scientists assembled it. Mongolian law prohibits the transport of such fossils outside the country.

“These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia,” said Dr. Mark Norell, Chairman and Curator, American Museum of American History, Division of Palentology [sic], who worked in Mongolia for 22 years.

And a Daily Mail article reports that the Tarbosaurus was collected in 2005, contrary to the comments of Heritage Auctions president Greg Rohan. From the news item:

For millions of years it lay hidden in the Gobi desert. Then for another two, the bones sat bagged up in a Dorset warehouse.

Now this spectacular, near-complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton has been painstakingly pieced back together by a British collector – and is set to sell for £750,000 at a New York auction on Saturday.

The 24ft long and 8ft high Tyrannosaurus bataar, a cousin of T-rex which lived around 80million years ago, was found in Mongolia and acquired by the collector in 2005.

He assembled and mounted half of the specimen but because the project proved quite expensive he struck a deal with a fellow enthusiast in America to help fund it.

The half-built dinosaur was shipped across the Atlantic to Florida where it was completed.

I am still waiting for these details to be officially confirmed. If Heritage Auctions has documentation regarding where, when, and how the dinosaur was collected, they should present those documents to the Mongolian government and other parties involved.

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