Wynne Parry
Just as this dinosaur specimen, a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, went up for auction on May 20, a question arose as to whether or not it was taken illegally from Mongolia.
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updated 6/20/2012 6:56:22 PM ET 2012-06-20T22:56:22

Federal officials have plans to seize a dinosaur skeleton that paleontologists and Mongolian officials say was taken illegally from that country.

Yesterday, a federal judge signed a warrant allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (ICE HSI) to seize the fossils, which belong to a 8-foot-tall and 24-foot-long (2.4-by-7.3 meter) Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton. 

Officials plan to collect the dinosaur on Friday from the facility where auction house Heritage Auctions has been storing it in Sunnyside, N.Y.

"It's a big package we have to pick up," said Luis Martinez, spokesman for ICE HSI. "We will keep it at a government location until we can repatriate it to Mongolia. Of course that all depends on the legal outcome."

The dinosaur is now the subject of a civil case initiated by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney.

Shortly before the fossils went up for auction on May 20, Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia attempted to prevent the sale of the Tarbosaurus, a type of tyrannosaur, saying the fossils were almost certainly taken illegally from his country. Heritage Auctions, which was in charge of the sale, sold the dinosaur for $1.1 million on the condition that the courts approve the sale.

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On Monday, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office announced it was filing a civil suit to take possession of the dinosaur, with the intent of returning it to Mongolia. In its complaint, the government contended that the fossils were subject to forfeiture, because those who imported them did so knowing they were stolen and because false information was provided on the customs forms.

After the fossils are seized they are expected to be held at an undisclosed facility while the legal case proceeds, Martinez said.

Follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry   or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook   and  Google+.

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