Friday, May 18, 2012

The dreadful truth about that Tyrannosaurus auction

You may have seen links being passed around about the Tyrannosaurus bataar - AKA Tarbosaurus bataar - being auctioned off by Heritage Auctions in New York City this weekend. It may well be an illegally obtained specimen. As in, stolen from Mongolia. Mongolian president Elbegdorj Tsakhia has released a statement about his concerns.

The tyrannosaur in question, from the auction house website.

On top of that, paleontologist Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History, who has spent plenty of time in the Gobi, has issued an open letter asking for the sale to be halted:
It is with great concern that I see Mongolian dinosaur materials listed in the upcoming (May 20) Heritage Auctions Natural History catalogue. For the last 22 years I have excavated specimens Mongolia in conjunction with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. I have been an author on over 75 scientific papers describing these important specimens. Unfortunately, in my years in the desert I have witnessed ever increasing illegal looting of dinosaur sites, including some of my own excavations. These extremely important fossils are now appearing on the international market.

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.


Dr. Mark A. Norell
Chairman and Curator
Division of Paleontology
"There is no legal mechanism to remove vertebrate fossil material from Mongolia." Says it all, doesn't it? It's hard to believe that there could be a favorable outcome to this, but here's hoping that reason prevails and the auction house does the responsible thing.

Dr. Bolortsetseg Minjin of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences has also issued a letter, this on behalf of the president of Mongolia:
I am writing you at the request of Elbegdorj Tsakhia, the President of Mongolia. He has asked me to inquire on the country of origin for the specimen of Tyannosaurus (aslo known as Tarbosaurus) bataar (lot 49315) which is scheduled to be auctioned by your company this Sunday, May 20, 2012. I am the director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs and also serve as the New York representative of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Based on our experience in the studying the collecting of Mongolian dinosaurs, and on the information provided by your company with other specimens to be auctioned this Sunday, we strongly suspect that the Tyrannosaurus specimen, as well as several others you intend to auction, came from Mongolia.

Mongolian law prohibits the export of fossil specimens, and if this specimen did in fact come from Mongolia, we we strongly urge you not to auction this specimen because it would then have been acquired and exported illegally. In fact, information on your website indicates that two of the tyrannosaur teeth (lots 49318, 49320) came from the Nemegt Formation, which is only exposed in Mongolia. Thus these specimens were acquired and exported illegally. We also strongly suspect that the ankylosaurus skull (lot 49317) came from Mongolia, and the troodontid may have come from Mongolia as well (lot 49318).

The auctioning of such specimens fuels the illegal fossil trade and must be stopped. If you could provide detailed information on the provenance(s) of these specimens, I will then pass on this information to the President of Mongolia. I strongly urge you not to auction the two, illegally exported tyrannosaur teeth from Mongolia. I strongly urge you not to auction the other specimens we have indicated until their legality is fully resolved. Even if the owner indicates that they did not come from Mongolia, we suggest that you investigate this matter closely as sometimes collectors falsify information or documents to make illegal specimens appear "legal". In the meantime, the best approach would be an open dialogue with the government of Mongolia and other interested parties in order to find an acceptable resolution to this problem. If it is eventually determined that these specimens did not come from Mongolia, it would be prudent for Heritage Auctions to consult the laws of the country of origin because many countries now prohibit the export or sale of such specimens (China is one example). Thank you for your prompt attention in this matter.


Bolortsetseg Minjin, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs
New York Representative of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences

Update 2:
There's a petition at that needs some signatures. Can't hurt.


  1. what's gonna happen is that no public museum dares bid, even secretly, and this great specimen will be sold off for ! a song and a dance" to some private collector, never to be seen again. Along with the other unquestionable Mongolian fossils.


    1. It's a Catch-22 situation, even if well-intentioned people or organisations obtain this through action it will have the unwelcome effect of promoting illegal fossil trade.

      Of course handling and selling stolen goods is itself illegal, so this should really be a police matter.

  2. Please forgive the extraordinary naivety and potential stupidity of the observation/question, but it must take some pretty diabolical stealth to secrete so much material as an entire skeleton away. I'm intrigued by how it must have been done. I'm not talking about 'several bones at a time'. I mean that it had to require considerable knowledge, such as the kind possessed by palaeontologists. Are looters so gifted with this at the same time as being blighted with dishonesty?

    1. Most fossil sites are in remote regions, and are only being actively worked on a few months out of the year, at best. It's not like they have standing guards. Many go years without even being revisited.

      However, you're right that it does require some knowledge to get the bones out in the first place, let alone mount them (and it looks like a pretty good mount).

    2. That's a particularly sad aspect of the story - this wouldn't have made it this far without the efforts of people who should really know better.

    3. The other issue is this is all to do with Mongolia and China, and both are known for wide spread corruption in their bureaucracies. All it takes is a bride to the right customs official and you can pass non hot items like fossils relatively easy. They'll even give you a "legal" authentication certificate claiming you acquired the specimen legally. Not that it is legal, but that is probably going to the be the auction house's excuse. They were presented with an official government document saying the Tarbosaurus was removed from the country with permission, and say that was that. Despite the fact they've had said government now publicly state it is not legal...

      If you want a really good (but scary) book on the state of illegal fossil activities John Long's Dinosaur Dealers is a fantastic resource.

    4. Re: Craig Dylke
      Well, you seem to know so much about how things are done in Mongolia. Maybe, you are also familiar with the notion that it takes two to be bribed and to bribe. So whoever offering the bribe is as bad as the other one who is receiving. You also are suggesting that you can bribe customs official so you can get this large dino skeleton through the border. Your comments are unfairly generalised, inflammatory and defamatory about Mongolia and its laws. Whilst I admit that Mongolia has issues with bribery and corruption, I fail to find any country which doesn't have the same problem. My personal take on this specific case is that the dino is from Mongolia, illegally crossed border (not through official customs) to China or Kazakhstan and bought by a businessman. It is unbelievable, unacceptable and extraordinary to see this illegally obtained historic object for sale! Mongolian law doesn't permit any fossil to be removed from Mongolia so there is nothing legal about this auction. I don't think, this auction is somehow justified because the blame lies with the supposed corruption of Mongolian customs official or officials.

    5. Mongolian-

      I think you are misunderstanding my reply. Admittely my intro sentence was crap. All I meant was that my new point of information was a unique issue to Mongolia and China. Not that this whole auction is the fault of the two countries.

      Despite the shortness of my comment, I have not unfairly generalised Mongolia (OR China for that matter). All I said is there are corrupt border officials in these two countries, and this is a fact. There ARE corrupt border officials in both. This is not a generalization!

      Yes such officials exist in all countries, but when it comes to fossils China and Mongolia have the particular problem of certificates of "legal" export.

      Beyond my bad opening to that sentense I do not see how I made any "inflammatory and defamatory" statements about either countries laws on fossil protection. I sympathize with boths efforts to protect their natural heritage. The issue of illegal fossil trafficing is one of my big beefs with the world.

      Whether this specific auction is the fault of a customs official or not is mute, the fossil poaching of Mongolia is directly enabled by the low accountablity these government personal are held to in regards to fossil movements. When a WHOLE Dinosaur skeleton passes borders without question until it shows up for sale on another continent this is a significant issue!

      I've come across two to three dozen illegal fossils here in Hong Kong, and each had an accompanying certificate "issued" by China or Mongolia claiming it was legally a private specimen (now in fairness only two were Mongolian, but two is still infinately higher than zero!). If it weren't potentially dangerous to myself, I would like to try and document some of these vendors and their fossils. However the three big offenders I've found are perfectly aware of the illegality of what they are doing, and got quite jumpy when I showed a degree of knowledge on the topic of fossil law. I can not be sure, but I'd suspect at least one was a front of organized crime (Triads), and frankly I don't want to mess with them.

      The corruption is certainly more complicated that my three sentence reply. For example it is a given fact that elements of international organized crime are playing a major role in the overall world fossil trade. However it is still up to governments to clamp down where they can, and neither China nor Mongolia can cry a total foul when they still allow their employees to issue these certificates.

      Yes the sellers and buyers of such fossils are a huge part of the problem. In fact they are the cause of it in the first place. However as I think everyone in this comment section agrees with that I didn't think I needed to outline it.

      The certificates could play a key role in the upcoming court battle for this skeleton. The auction house and the fossil's current "owner" are going to argue (if they have a certificate for this Tarbosaurus) they believed this certificate was authentic, and this can hardly be their fault that the Mongolia can not control its own customs system. Yes this a wrong and morally bankrupt arguement, but they'll make it. The real question is how the American legal system will respond to it. Will they up hold Mongolian law in the US, or will they go the easy possession is 9/10ths of the law and declare the fact the skeleton was allowed to leave Mongolia as a failing in that country and not an issue for the American legal system...

      This potentially has some scary and far reaching ramifications in terms of legal precidence depending on the outcome.

  3. As noted by Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History:
    "In the current catalogue Lot 49317 (skull of Saichania) and Lot 49315 (amounted 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 catalog, 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.... 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, I am appalled that these illegally collected specimens (with no associated documents regarding provenance) are being are being sold at auction."
    AND from the UK Daily Mail:
    "The 24ft long and 8ft high Tyrannosaurus bataar, a cousin of T-rex which lived around 80 million years ago, was found in Mongolia and acquired by the collector in 2005. AND David Herskowitz, director of natural history at Heritage Auctions in New York, said 'The specimen was found over 10 years ago in the Gobi desert and is owned by a fossil collector from Dorset."
    Since there has been no legal mechanism for removing fossils from Mongolia for over 50 years, it is clear that the material is CONTRABAND and the PATRIMONY of the people of Mongolia.

  4. The listed "owner" must be aware that their possession is illegal. Why are they not helping police with their enquiries even now?

  5. If I'm not mistaken the auction was canceled. I don't have the source with me right now though.

    1. Sadly no, they conditionally sold it yesterday. The auction house has stated they are confident they could successfully appeal the injunction...

      The big question of significance is whether they can win or not.

  6. Typical rude and law violating actions by rich but arrogant americans or whoever involved in these kind of actions... Ignoring other country's laws and forcing that trade is a clear crime.

    1. I hear you but I wouldn't want to tar all Americans with the same brush. I mean, some of the Canadians aren't too bad. :-)

    2. Everyone involved in this is to blame, and it certainly was an international effort. Greed knows no nationality.


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