Monday, May 21, 2012

Mo' Money Mo' Problems: Tarbosaurus sale temporarily halted

Well, the Tarbosaurus / Tyrannosaurus bataar that we've been thinking about all weekend has been sold for a reported $1,052,500 to an undisclosed buyer, though the auction house, Texas-based Heritage Auctions, notes that this sale is "contingent upon resolution of a court proceeding." The proceeding in question stems from a Temporary Restraining Order issued by a Texas judge in response to a lawsuit filed by the Mongolian government's US counsel, Painter Law Firm. Heritage Auctions maintains that the specimen was legally exported, and the sale violates no laws:
The Mongolian Government's request, issued less than 48 hours before the auction, is misleading, unreasonable and inappropriate. There is simply no reason to believe that any laws enforced by the United States have been violated and we remain unconvinced that even Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia. It's important to note that Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that.
By far, the most galling statement I've yet read is the bit that says "Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that." Quite a strategy, undermining the very idea of a nation laying claim to the natural resources within its borders, just because those resources were formed long before the nation existed. If that's the case, let's just throw out all of international law. I can't wait to see what proof Heritage can provide for the fossil's legality. It apparently comes from "an individual with a good reputation who has warrantied in writing to us that he holds clear title to the specimen. We've seen no evidence even suggesting that the fossils were collected illegally." Nope. That doesn't cut it either. You've seen it. You just refuse to acknowledge it. Shifting the burden of proof doesn't change it.

The protestations coming from the auction house have a familiar flavor to them, seemingly ripped straight from the Creationist playbook. Creationists are protecting their dogma; Heritage is protecting its money. It all adds up to a deliberate effort to ignore the truth and manufacture doubt with irrelevant statements like “no one knows where exactly it was dug up. They’d have to find the hole and match up the matrix.” If it's a Tarbosaurus, it came from the Nemegt Formation. If it came from the Nemegt Formation, it was illegally exported. Simple. There's the bare sliver of a chance that it came from a Nemegt exposure previously untapped, from outside Mongolia, but in a message to the Dinosaur Mailing List, Dr. Tom Holtz writes "if that were the case for this specimen that would make it even more scientifically significant!"

Facts about the materials' collection and those who did all the hard work of transporting, preparing, and mounting it, are hard to come by. Going by a report in the Daily Mail, Painter Law Firm writes that "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."

So, to lay it out in a few bullet points:

1. These fossils are part of the natural heritage of the Mongolian people.
2. These fossils deserve to be studied properly, so that the people of Mongolia and the world can benefit from the knowledge the material holds about the history of life on Earth.
3. Stealing is bad, but when conducted by a group of people who should know better, it's unforgivable.

It's sad that this specimen was sold, but I'm going to remain hopeful that the Mongolian people will receive justice when this case is heard in court. The auction house can make all the noise they want. They'll run into the same problem the Creationists do. We've got the facts on our side.

Painter Law Firm Press Release
Heritage Auctions pre-sale press release
Heritage auctions post-sale press release
Daily Mail story referring to the fossils' collection and mounting
Brian Switek's post at Laelaps, with combative comment thread!

One last thing, copyeditors: T. rex, not T-Rex. Okay?


  1. Huh, if I knew that it was going to go for only a mill I would've stuck my hand up. I mean, I'm all for protecting people's heritage and natural resources and stuff but... it's nearly a freakin' T-Rex (sorry) man! I'd be prepared to bend a few principles to have that in my lounge room.

    Ok, turning off the sarcasm, I almost have to give them some grudging respect for coming up with the line about the remains being older than the nation. Imagine if a court gave that the tick of approval - anyone would be able to take any fossils, archaeological artefacts, oil, ore, water (or even some trees) that they wanted, because whatever entity was claiming ownership or mining/collecting rights over them didn't exist when they were formed.

    Hope it turns out well for the side of goodness and light. Heritage Auctions need to be given a stiff penalty to hopefully deter others from continuing to encourage this.

    1. Yeah, it's possible to be evil and creative. It's one thing to spit on the Mongolian peoples' rights, but to just pull the rug out of the idea of the nation takes tyrannosaur-sized balls.

      I'm happy that we're putting up such a fight and making this as hard as it is. And good for the Mongolian government for fighting for their rights, too.

  2. If this fossil was stolen, the auction house must share in the culpability of the theft. Send a message--indict them all!

  3. ...And it's not T. rex, it's T. bataar. And in that case, 'T' is for 'Tarbosaurus'. Outside of dodgy auction houses, people generally aren't synonymysing it anymore...

    (Because of course, that's definitely the most important issue here. Taxonomy. Yes.)

    1. Also from the Daily Mail story, if we're going to get pedantic: "These dinosaurs, distant cousins of the T-Rex, were recently reclassified as Tyrannosaurid." Uhhhh.

  4. Well, the sale is “conditional” and “will be contingent upon resolution of a court proceeding” so there’s still hope the dinosaur may return to Mongolia.

  5. If the thought goes like that in USA, then everyone could just show up at American museums of natural history and take whatever fossils they want. Logically, museums can't own something which is older then the American Independence.

    (I just made the hashtag up, and used it on twitter already. Other ideas are quite welcome.)

  6. I'm really curious to see what the auction house's case is going to be. My guess is they're going to claim Mongolian law only applies in Mongolia, and that since the fossils have left that country clearly Mongolia doesn't care about fossil protection that much (boiled down of course... it'll sound more fancy when they say it). The question is will an American judge agree with this logic, or do the right thing and uphold that this was clearly an illegal export.

    Of particular interest, and something I haven't seen yet, does the "owner" of the Tarbosaurus have documentation from Mongolia claiming it is "legitimate". Like I said in the comments on the last post, these sorts of certificates are common with illegal fossils from China and Mongolia. If a set of these documents are presented in this case it'll be the first time, at least to me knowledge, that such papers will essentially go on trial!

    This case, especially if it goes to court, will have huge implications on the illegal fossil trade one way or the other with the legal precedent it sets in US law...

    1. Craig,

      I hope you are correct. A few years ago, similar cases in the art world resulted in the present situation, where it is impossible to auction off a piece of art if any questions are raised about its provenance and whether it was looted or stolen. It would be fantastic if fossils achieve the same protections now afforded to artworks.


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