SET IN STONE

06.11.14

Stopping the Million-Dollar Fossil Thieves: Illegal Trade Meets World of Insatiable Research

After the successful prosecution of Eric Prokopi, a ‘one-man black market in prehistoric fossils,’ paleontologists debate the best, legal ways to continue fossil preservation and recording.

The skeleton was, according to the Heritage Auctions catalogue for its May 2012 auction of fossils, meteorites, crystals, and petrified wood, a “museum-quality specimen of one of the most emblematic dinosaurs ever to have stalked this earth.”

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The preservation quality of the fossil, a near-complete Tyrannosaurus bataar dug up from the southern wastes of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, was rhapsodized as “superb, with wonderful bone texture and delightfully mottled greyish bone color. In striking contrast are those deadly teeth, long and frightfully robust, in a warm woody brown color, the fearsome, bristling mouth and monstrous jaws leaving one in no doubt as to how the creature came to rule its food chain.” The Texas-based auction house placed the opening bid at $875,000.

Rule, the Tyrannosaurus bataar did. The Asiatic cousin of the T. rex roamed the humid floodplains of modern-day Mongolia during the late Cretaceous Period, a 40-foot-long apex predator that prayed on hadrosaurs and sauropods, tearing them apart with 64 three-inch razor-like teeth. But in the case of U.S. v. Eric Prokopi, the Tyrannosaurus bataar has become the victim—of kidnapping.

Prokopi, a “commercial paleontologist” who prosecutors labeled a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils,” was sentenced last week to three months in prison for smuggling the fossil out of its native Mongolia. The black market trade in fossils stolen from the richest Cretaceous fossil locality in the world has prompted a crackdown.

Under Mongolian law, any fossil specimen found in the Gobi Desert must stay in the possession of a Mongolian institution. Given that T. bataar fossils are only found in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China, both of which ban their export, noted members of the paleontological community immediately voiced suspicion.

Dr. Mark Norell, chairman and curator-in-charge of the paleontology department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was one of the first to question the fossil’s provenance. “When I saw that the auction was going to be in New York, I sent an open letter around, and it was noticed by people in the Mongolian government, as well as the U.S. government. Then the president of Mongolia got involved.”

“People have offered me amazing stuff, but [if it has been illegally collected] not only am I not allowed to put it on display or work on it, scientifically, I’m not even allowed to have it on the premises.”

Dr. Norell, who has been co-directing a team of American and Mongolian paleontologists in the Gobi Desert for 25 years, may be the most qualified person on the planet in determining the origins of the skeleton. His and other calls to examine the fossil’s chain of custody and the legality of the auction prompted the Mongolian government to order an investigation into the origin of the fossil. “Under Article 175 of Mongolian criminal law, the export of dinosaur bones and fossils is a criminal offense,” the government’s lawsuit said.

The suit came too late to prevent the auction from going forward—the fossil went to Coleman Burke, a Manhattan real-estate developer, lawyer, and dinosaur enthusiast for $1.05 million with commission—although the sale was halted before the T. bataar traded hands and disappeared into the often murky world of private collections.

“The market isn’t mature enough to know whether privately collected fossils will ever resurface,” according to Dr. Norell, who points to the record sale of “Sue,” a T. rex skeleton that sold at auction for $8.36 million in 1997, as the turning point for the commercial fossil industry. “Once that happened, it started to look a lot more lucrative.”

The temptation of discovering a million-dollar fossil, illegal though the sale of those fossils may be, is often too great in the fossil-rich and everything-else-poor areas of the Gobi Desert, Brazil’s Araripe Basin, or Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Illegal fossil trade apologists often cite the fact that the market offers impoverished people a livelihood as justification for the practice. The practice becomes less charitable once the fossils are sold, however.

According to Dr. Norell, the American Museum of Natural History has a strict policy regarding suspect fossils. “We have a very, very strict collection policy. People have come in to my office and offered me amazing stuff, but [if it has been illegally collected] not only am I not allowed to put it on display or work on it, scientifically, I’m not even allowed to have it on the premises.” Occasionally, however, other unsuspecting or unscrupulous museums will purchase an illegal fossil, allowing scientists to study them—although whether that study is useful is questionable, according to Dr. Norell. “Illegal collecting is much more likely to damage specimens, and the lack of contextual field data makes studying [the fossils] nearly useless.”

And if the fossils go to a private collector, they are effectively lost to paleontology and the public for good. At some gem and mineral shows, prospective buyers who successfully ingratiate themselves with fossil dealers can get their hands on museum-quality specimens, many of them illegal. Nicolas Cage, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford—yes, Indiana Jones himself—are rumored to have impressive collections.

Once the case of Prokopi’s purloined skeleton came to light, the trade in Mongolia’s fossils plummeted. “Since this story broke, I haven’t seen a single Mongolian piece,” says Dr. Norell. “We started knowing that these fossils were going to be the property of the Mongolian government. They may come to New York for study, but they return to Mongolia.”

Groups composed of fossil enthusiasts, private collectors, and commercial dealers have come out against nativist bans on fossil exports like those in place in Mongolia. According to them, there are too few professional paleontologists to collect and preserve fossils currently exposed to the elements, and that private collection is a necessity, if only for the sake of the preservation of the fossil record.

Dr. Norell is split on the issue of private collection. “A lot of things that happened in [the T. bataar] case vilified the commercial trade in fossils. There is a totally legal trade in this stuff that isn’t against the laws.” As a paleontologist, he obviously understands the public fascination with dinosaurs and their remains. “Do I think that paleontologists have an exclusive right to fossils? No. As long as laws are carefully followed, these people are not bad people.”

As for Prokopi, his arrest proved to be a coup for federal authorities on the hunt for illegal fossils. After an initial public statement proclaiming his innocence and citing the “total financial ruin” the accusations meant for his family, Prokopi pleaded guilty for his involvement in illegally importing fossils. According to Prokopi, he knew “just about all of the people involved in the business of Central Asian fossils, and could offer ideas and help to make permanent changes that would nearly eliminate the black market.”

Reflecting on Prokopi’s cooperation with investigations that helped net thousands of illegal fossils, the presiding judge handed down a three-month prison sentence—more than the probation the defense argued for, but considerably less than the 17-year maximum. According to the judge: “[Prokopi’s] clearly not a bad person, but he’s done a bad thing.”

Once sentenced, Prokopi apologized to the court for his actions, saying it cost him his marriage, business, self-respect and left him bankrupt and “six figures” in debt.

He also told the judge he hoped to return to the commercial fossil trade someday. “I sincerely love fossils.”