When we imagine a smuggler, most of us think of illegal drugs, of precious stones and valuable artifacts, or even those occasional head-scratchers when someone is caught at customs with exotic pets hidden inside their pant legs. This story, also recounted at-length in the latest issue of the The New Yorker, makes them all look like amateurs.
In December, Eric Prokopi went on trial in New York City for smuggling the skeleton of a 70-million-year-old Mongolian Tyrannosaurus bataar (or Tarbosaurus, as it is also known). Prosecutors contended that he took the bones from the Gobi desert, then attempted to auction them off for more than $1 million. The Mongolian government raced to shut down the sale.
Just bringing the case to court was a major achievement. During the trial, he pleaded guilty on three counts of felony, admitting to smuggling a duckbilled Saurolophus, something known as a Chinese Flying Dinosaur, and two Oviraptors. He is currently awaiting sentencing.
But Prokopi isn’t alone in this niche illicit trade: For decades, the paleontology community has battled a serious smuggling problem. Fossils can command high prices on the black market. But that keeps the bones from researchers who would study them—and from the public of countries like Mongolia, who never get to see the skeletons. As Indiana Jones would say, “These belong in a museum.”
Stealing something as large as a Tyrannosaurus bataar—as large as 30 to 40 feet long—is obviously not an easy task. But as anyone who has seen Ocean’s Eleven knows, any heist worth doing requires careful planning and patience.
Prokopi, who appears to have acted alone, first obtained the skeleton as a pile of bones. (How, exactly, remains unclear—more on that in a minute.) Then, over a period of two years, the bones were shipped to the United States in several large batches. Finally, he painstakingly reassembled the dino by hand.
Instead of dealing privately with potential buyers, which might have kept his crime off the radar, Prokopi decided to put the skeleton up for auction with Heritage auction house, based in Dallas. Heritage is the third-largest auction house in the world, and its sales include everything from valuable action figures and coins to fossils. Three days before the May 20 sale was to take place in New York City, Bolortsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist based in Manhattan, saw a local news story on the upcoming auction. When an image of the skeleton flashed across the screen, Minjin became suspicious.
“The bone was the light color coloration found in Mongolia,” Minjin says. That was a red flag: In Mongolia and most other countries, if you find a dinosaur, it belongs to the state, so it was highly unlikely that the seller had acquired the bones legally. (The United States is one of the few countries that grants right to anyone who finds a fossil in their backyard.) She sent an email to an advisor of Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, warning them about the impending sale. The next day the Mongolian government called Houston-based lawyer Robert Painter and asked whether anything could be done to stop the auction.
Painter had fewer than 48 hours to prove that the bones were illegally removed from the country. If he failed, that was it: Once a skeleton is sold at auction, it is nearly impossible for its country of origin to get it back. That evening, Painter found a judge in Dallas, acquired a temporary restraining order on the sale of the creature, had applicable Mongolian laws translated to English—and flew to New York.
On the morning of the sale, Minjin and a small group of Mongolians stood outside of Heritage, protesting the sale of their dinosaur. (Painter, meanwhile, killed time by perusing the offerings at the auction house—and buying a watch with a face made from a meteorite.)
The restraining order should have stopped the sale, but it seems not everyone was onboard, and an already strange story got even stranger: When the Tyrannosaurus bataar came up for sale, Painter stood up, holding his phone. On the line was a judge who, Painter said, was waiting to explain to the auctioneer that he was on the verge of violating a court order. Painter said he was ushered into a backroom at the auction house—and, he tells me, the sale continued. The dinosaur went for more than $1 million.
Painter explained, “You buy a Rolex and the paperwork tracks it back to a factory. But you want to buy a dinosaur, it’s a wink and a nod and no questions asked. Heritage did more due diligence on a watch.” Heritage did not respond to a request
for comment. After day or two, however, Heritage decided to cooperate with the judge–and the skeleton’s new owner, who hadn’t realized the sale of the skeleton was contentious, contacted Painter and told him that he didn’t want to be involved.
A couple of weeks later, on June 5, a team of paleontologists (including Minjin) inspected the dinosaur and agreed that it came from Mongolia. The U.S. Attorney’s office in New York then launched an investigation of its own. An in rem suit (in which a court exercises power over property) was filed, and soon a federal judge signed a warrant for the arrest of the dinosaur.
Yes, the dinosaur. As there was no other player in this case, the case was named United States of America vs. One Tyrannosaurus bataar Skeleton. Federal agents took custody of the skeleton and moved it to an undisclosed storage space in New York City, where it remains.
“Now the U.S. government says, ‘We found this dinosaur, and we’re going to return it to Mongolia unless someone says ‘It’s ours.’ ” Painter says. Except someone did say, “It’s mine”: Eric Prokopi.
Up to this point, Prokopi had laid low. Had he stayed that course and let the dinosaur go, things might have turned out better for him. He would have lost the $1 million he stood to gain from the auction, and whatever he spent to get and rebuild the skeleton. But he might not have been facing 17 years in jail for three separate felonies— two counts of conspiracy and one count of customs fraud. (He had listed the skeleton on his customs form as reptile bones.) “My personal opinion is by taking a position [and claiming the skeleton] in the civil case, he invited an investigation,” says Painter.
WHEN HOMELAND SECURITY AGENTS RAIDED PROKOPI'S GAINESVILLE HOME on October 17, 2012, they found another nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, as well as several others in various stages of completion. Remarkably, while they were there, a delivery truck carrying still more Mongolian dinosaur bones pulled up to the house.
This time, the case was The United States of America vs. Eric Prokopi.
It’s still unclear exactly where and how Prokopi obtained the skeleton. At one point, he said that he had purchased it in Japan, but at the time this article was published he hadn’t provided receipts or forms to prove that. Moreover, his passport shows he has spent time in Mongolia between 2010 and 2012.
As the case in the United States gained steam, the Mongolian government started its own inquiries, circulating a photo of Eric Prokopi in the Gobi desert. Someone even produced a photograph of Prokopi at an excavation site.
Minjin says the case has also given Mongolian people a sense of pride and ownership over the dinosaurs. For the most part, Mongolian people had had very little exposure to dinosaurs. But since the story broke in May, the local media has followed the story closely, and citizens are anxiously awaiting the fate of their dinosaur. The government is also planning several museums dedicated to Mongolia’s dinosaurs. Perhaps equally importantly, says Minjin, is that this experience will help combat fossil smuggling in the future. It “has given us a map of how to do this again,” Minjin she says.
Prokopi’s sentencing won’t happen until April. Perhaps by then the Tyrannosaurus bataar will be back home, terrifying and delighting Mongolian children.