Image: Tyrannosaurus bataar
Reuters
An eight-foot tall, 24-foot long Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is seen in this photo from Heritage Auctions in New York.
By
updated 6/22/2012 9:55:24 PM ET 2012-06-23T01:55:24

The U.S. government seized a rare dinosaur skeleton Friday, in what observers for the Mongolian government and a dinosaur expert called an important step toward returning the skeleton to its home in Mongolia.

Wooden crates holding pieces of the Tyrannosaurus bataar fossil were loaded onto a white truck at a Queens storage center shortly before it was driven away to a facility whose location was not disclosed.

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"We are one step closer to bringing this rare Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton back home to the people of Mongolia," Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia said in a statement handed out by his Houston lawyer, Robert Painter, who took photographs of the seizure through a chain-link fence outside the Cadogan Tate Fine Art property where it had been stored.

"Today we send a message to looters all over the world: We will not turn a blind eye to the marketplace of looted fossils," he said.

Bolortsetseg Minjin, director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, took pictures of the exchange as well, saying: "It's a very exciting event. It's just unbelievable. I never expected it would be this fast."

The seizure was ordered by a federal judge in Manhattan earlier this week after the United States requested it in a lawsuit, saying the relics had been brought into the country with documents that disguised the potentially valuable dinosaur skeleton that originated in Mongolia as reptile bones from Great Britain.

Seller defends his actions
Eric Prokopi, 37, of Gainesville, Florida, defended his handling of the skeleton in a statement Thursday, saying that he was not an international bone smuggler and that he had worked since bringing the bones into the country in March 2010 to turn chunks of rocks and broken bones "into an impressive skeleton" that he came to call "Ty."

"I can wholeheartedly say the import documents are not fraudulent, a truth I am confident will be brought to light in the coming weeks," he said. "The value was declared much lower than the auction value because, quite simply, it was loose, mostly broken bones and rocks with embedded bones. It was not what you see today, a virtually complete, mounted skeleton."

Image: Skull
Reuters
The skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar lies on the floor after disassembly, in a picture provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The bones were valued on import documents at only $15,000, but the skeleton Prokopi put together sold at auction last month for $1.052 million, contingent on the outcome of litigation involving the dinosaur.

Although the buyer has not been disclosed, Painter said he had been told that a New York private gallery owner had made the winning bid.

Prokopi responded to an email request for comment Friday by writing: "My reaction to the government driving away with my dinosaur in a large white truck is the reaction I imagine Indiana Jones had to the ark being put into storage at the end of his film."

Held in 'secure location'
After the seizure Friday, Glenn Sorge, a deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations for the Department of Homeland Security in New York, said the dinosaur "is now in the custody of the U.S. government and will be stored in a secure location."

The dinosaur was taken from the custody of Heritage Auctions, a Dallas-based company. Its co-chairman, Jim Halperin, said Friday that the company will continue to work with Prokopi.

"We hope arrangements can be made for the public to view it as a museum or other convenient venue while our efforts continue to reach a fair and just resolution for our consignor, who had spent a year of his life and considerable expense identifying, restoring, mounting and preparing what had previously been a much less valuable matrix of unassembled, underlying bones and bone fragments," he said.

The Tyrannosaurus bataar, also known as a Tarbosaurus bataar, lived during the late Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago, the government said in its lawsuit. It was first discovered in 1946 during a joint Soviet-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi Desert in the Mongolian Omnogovi Province. Mongolia has enacted laws since 1924 declaring dinosaur fossils to be the property of the government of Mongolia and criminalizing their export from the country.

Image: Transporting a dinosaur
Shannon Stapleton  /  Reuters
Photographers take pictures of crates carrying a dinosaur skeleton being loaded onto a transport vehicle after being seized by U.S. authorities in New York on Friday.

Claims and counterclaims
Mark Norell, head paleontologist with New York's American Museum of Natural History, was not at the seizure but said in a telephone interview that he was one of several people to spread word about the dinosaur's planned sale at auction. He challenged Prokopi's claim that the skeleton may have come from outside Mongolia, saying that some fragments of the same species of dinosaur had been found in adjacent China, but no complete skeletons. He noted also that China's laws regarding excavation were stricter than Mongolia's.

He said Prokopi was inaccurate when he claimed the skeleton was professionally excavated and had lost some claws and teeth due to the weather, and that some teeth had slipped out before burial.

"That's just not the case," he said. "I've excavated fossils my entire adult career. Teeth and claws are about the last things to erode because they're so hard," he said.

Minjin said the skeleton was one of only 10 to 15 full skeletons of the Tyrannosaurus bataar to exist worldwide.

"Finding this kind of complete skeleton is very rare, very special," she said.

Fredrik T. Hiebert, an archaeologist with National Geographic mission programs who attended the seizure, said the likelihood that the dinosaur will end up in Mongolia was vital to the country bordered by China and Russia.

"This is a bigger story than just a dinosaur. It's part of the cultural identity of Mongolia," he said, noting that the nation was re-establishing its identity after decades of Soviet control that ended just over two decades ago.

Still, he said there was no denying the dinosaur had gained a measure of fame. "It's become a rock star, pardon the pun."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The world's seven deadliest dinosaurs

  • Copyright 1985 Mark Hallett, "Awakening of Hunger"

    Yeah, it's cliche to say Tyrannosaurus rex was deadly. But the tyrant king was likely true to the billing. Its bone-crushing jaws could splinter prey like toothpicks, after all. And the beast was big, up to 40 feet long, 20 feet tall, and may have topped the scales at nearly 16,000 pounds.

    The king walked on two legs over a vast territory in western North America at the end of the Cretaceous, about 65 million years ago. Scientists wonder whether T. rex was more a lumbering scavenger or a quick and agile predator, but dead or alive, its meals were big, meaty and bloody.

    T. rex wasn't the only deadly dino, however. The globe was filled vicious killers. Click the arrows above to see more.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Family diner

    Demetrios M. Vital

    Family meals for Majungasaurus crenatissimus were often bloody affairs of the grimmest sort: Kin were the main course. The evidence of its cannibalistic ways comes from telltale tooth marks on Majungasaurus bones that match up perfectly with the size and spacing of teeth in its jaws.

    The 20-foot-long dinosaur stalked the plains of Madagascar about 70 million years ago. At that time, the crime-scene investigators said, pickings were often slim. Their data indicate Majungasaurus fed on dried out "dino jerky" from its plant-eating compatriots as well as members of its own species. Cannibalism was likely just as common among dinosaurs as it is among living animals, but the evidence is rare.

  • Brow beater

    Todd Marshall

    Eocarcharia dinops' brow was swollen into a massive band of bone. The menacing head piece may have been used as a battering ram against rivals and to attract potential mates. Its blade-shape teeth were reserved for disabling live prey and severing their body parts.

    The 110-million-year-old beast and its snout-nosed, gut-and-carcass-scavenging relative Kryptops palaios were discovered in Africa's Sahara Desert. The approximately 7-foot-tall and 25-foot-long duo likely teamed up with a third carnivore and feasted on the long-necked plant-eater Nigersaurus.

  • Vicious rocker

    Parsons

    The toothy Masiakasaurus knopfleri likely speared prey with its forward projecting front teeth and then sliced and tore the captives into chewy chunks with its bladelike rears. This type of tooth arrangement is otherwise unknown in predatory dinosaurs.

    Scientists believe the German Shepherd sized beast feasted on fish, lizards, and other critters on the southern supercontinent Gondwana in the Late Cretaceous period, about 65 to 70 million years ago.

    The first part of this dinosaur's name means "vicious lizard" and the second part is derived from the Dire Straits singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose music inspired the discoverers as they toiled on the African island nation of Madagascar.

  • Biggest carnivore?

    Prof. Rodolfo Coria / Ap

    At about 40 feet long and weighing an estimated 6 tons, Mapusaurus roseae was one of the biggest meat-eating dinosaurs to ever stalk the Earth. Bones of several individuals were discovered in one place, suggesting the giants may have hunted in packs that could have toppled perhaps the largest dinosaur that ever lived — a 100-foot-long plant eater called Argentinosaurus.

    Mapusaurus lived about 100 million years ago and was bigger than well known Tyrannosaurus rex and possibly larger than its older cousin, Gigantosaurus. Its teeth were narrow and blade like, made for slicing its prey. The bones were discovered in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

  • Going green

    MWS

    Falcarius utahensis is the living image of a vicious meat eater trying to go vegetarian. Scientists aren't sure if the bird-like relative of Velociraptor had fully kicked its taste for flesh, but its meat-cutting teeth had shrunk to leaf-cutting size and its gut had expanded sufficiently to ferment plants.

    Falcarius walked on two legs and stood about 4.5 feet tall. Head to tail, it was about 13 feet long and wielded sharp, curved, four-inch long claws — perhaps to grab a bite when it fell off the wagon? The dinosaur lived during the Early Cretaceous, about 125 million years ago, in what is today Utah.

  • Plant ripper

    utah.edu

    No plants were safe from Gryposaurus monumentensis, a big boned, duck-billed dinosaur that could have eaten any vegetation it stumbled across. Its massive skull packed more than 300 teeth for slicing up fibrous greens. Hundreds more replacement teeth rested in its jawbone for the call-up to action.

    The dinosaur lived in the Late Cretaceous, about 75 million years ago on the western side of a giant, shallow ocean that split North America at that time. The plant-munching beast may have reached 30 feet long as an adult and had a 3-foot-long head.

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