Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Tarbosaurus Saga Continues

In May, paleontology enthusiasts watched intently as a fossil smuggling drama hit the mainstream, in the form of a high-profile auction of an exquisite Tarbosaurus bataar specimen. I wrote about it in a couple of posts (here and here), and there has been more activity since then. In late June, federal authorities took custody of the fossils after protest from the paleontological community and the Mongolian government. Now, Eric Prokopi, the fossil dealer who imported the Tarbosaurus and prepared it for auction, has declared his intention to file suit against the US government to retrieve the dinosaur.

At LiveScience, Wynne Parry writes about Prokopi's claim. Part of it is worth quoting at length:
Although the fossils fetched nearly $1.1 million at auction, the sale did not go through because of the Mongolian claim on the fossils. Paleontologists have supported this claim, saying that clearly identifiable remains for Tarbosaurus bataar, an Asian relative of T. rex, are only known to have come from a rock formation located within Mongolia.

Prokopi has questioned that, writing in a statement to the media in June that the bones could have come from elsewhere. "Other than (from) the diggers, there is no way for anyone to know for certain when or where the specimen was collected." "I'm just a guy in Gainesville, Florida, trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler," he wrote.
Unfortunately, those two are not mutually exclusive. Walter White is both a guy trying to support his family and a meth cook. Fossils are part of each country's national heritage; they are national resources as much as minerals, oil, or timber. Why is it that fossil theft isn't seen as theft at all? The people of Mongolia deserve to hold their own natural history in their institutions, open to study by the international science community. We all deserve that. The argument that the provenance cannot be pinned down by anyone but "the diggers" is like something out of the Young Earth Creationist playbook. It's a smokescreen meant to undercut the expertise of paleontologists who can confidently infer where the bones were collected. In a statement from Prokopi released in June he says:
"It's certainly possible a new locality with complete specimens was discovered in another country," he writes. "Just because it is unknown to professional paleontologists now doesn't mean it is not possible."

Prokopi writes he purchased the bones without being certain of where they were collected.
I certainly don't want the man's family to come to financial ruin, but the burden of proof is on him. It was his responsibility to do his due diligence and ensure that the fossils were not obtained illegally. If "the diggers" or his connection in the UK, fossil dealer Chris Moore, cannot provide this supposed "new locality," what option do we have other than to go by the expertise of the paleontological community? After all, without their work these fossils would be little more than strange rocks, and there would be no market for them.

Surely, a fossil dealer is aware of the tricky web of international laws that must be navigated to do business. The desire to protect one's family seems to preclude investing all of its money into a venture of dubious legality.


  1. Surely a tiny detail like where something came from is worth its weight in gold to the buyer - especially if that information meant that the buyer was the proud owner of the world's _first_ non-Mongolian Tarbosaurus! The argument that the provenance can only be pinned down by the diggers is a bit like saying "never mind what the art historian's say. Even though the observed brush strokes of the painting I'm auctioning are exactly the same as those of the Mona Lisa, 15th/16th century pigments can be found anywhere. Only the guy who acquired the painting for me can possibly tell whether it is the Mona Lisa".

  2. Haha, love the comparison with Walter White, altho' I'm pulling for White in "Breaking Bad" but not Prokopi in smuggling bones.

    Prokopi's statements above ('can't be certain of the specimen's origin' and 'just supporting his family') are not even specious - they are disingenuous. He's been caught out engaging in deceptive behaviour (even if his actual importation was not illegal according to US law) and should have been aware of the potential consequences of his actions, and now he's crying foul.

    If he succeeds in having the specimen returned to him, or is partially compensated for his loss, it will just send a message to the other black-market dealers that it's ok to keep on trading in illegally obtained specimens.

    @palaeosam - nice simile. I was going to go with comparing it to illegally exporting protected wildlife but that will do.

  3. Of course this whole thing has larger repercussions, and the issue of fossil repatriation from times when fossil hunting was a more swashbuckling affair (Roy Chapman Andrews) fascinates me. Many of the old-guard museums are filled with fossils obtained in other parts of the world during murkier political climates. I wonder, how do present-day political boundaries affect claims of ownership/stewardship of fossils/minerals collected in times before those boundaries or states even existed?


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