NEW YORK — Several dinosaur skeletons and a fossilized egg looted from the Gobi Desert and illegally smuggled into the United States were returned to the government of Mongolia Thursday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI special agents seized the items during two separate investigations and determined they were illegally poached and smuggled out of Mongolia between 2005 and 2012.
The repatriation ceremony was conducted by James T. Hayes, special agent in charge of HSI New York; Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; and Od Och, ambassador, permanent representative of Mongolia to the United Nations.
The Mongolian government received:
- Saurolophus Angustirostris (Hadrosaur) skeleton;
- Oviraptor matrix containing the remains of at least five Oviraptor skeletons;
- Nearly complete Tyrannosaurs Bataar skeleton;
- Nearly complete Saurolophus Angustirostris (Hadrosaur) skeleton;
- Nearly complete Oviraptor skeleton
- Oviraptor Egg
"The fossils returned today do not belong in the hands of any private collection or one owner. They belong to the people of Mongolia where they will be displayed in their national museum alongside the Bataar ICE repatriated last year," said Hayes. "HSI will not allow the illicit greed of some to trump the cultural history of an entire nation."
"Today, we return a veritable nest of dinosaurs that includes two additional Tyrannosaurus bataar skeletons, along with numerous other examples of fossils of dinosaurs native to the Gobi Desert," said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. "This is a historic event for the U.S. Attorney's Office, in addition to being a pre-historic event, and we are proud to participate in the return of these dinosaur skeletons to their rightful home."
HSI seized the majority of the skeletons from Eric Prokopi, a commercial paleontologist. Eight different seizures included at least 31 fossilized dinosaur remains, as well as lizard and turtle skeletons. On June 3, Prokopi was sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to three months incarceration and one year and three months supervised release on charges related to smuggling, conspiracy and sale or receipt of stolen goods.
An Oviraptor egg skeleton was also returned Thursday to the Mongolian government. HSI special agents seized it during a separate investigation.
In January 2013, after a tip from the Bureau of Land Management, HSI special agents began investigating a business that was in possession of multiple fossils. Agents, working undercover, examined the objects on display, which included an Oviraptor egg. After securing a sealed federal search warrant, the special agents determined the Oviraptor egg, from Mongolia, was authentic.
For almost a century, Mongolian law has firmly established that all paleontological findings are government property and part of the nation's rich cultural heritage. Since 1924, the Mongolian government has prohibited personal ownership and criminalized the export of items of cultural significance, such as dinosaur remains.
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Operations, through its 75 attaché offices in 48 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.
HSI's specially trained investigators assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.
Since 2007, more than 7,150 artifacts have been returned to 27 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru; as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.
Learn more about HSI cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete its online tip form.