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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
12/16/2015

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Forfeiture of Tyrannosaurus bataar skull sought following ICE probe

NEW YORK — The United States filed a civil forfeiture complaint against a Tyrannosaurus bataar skull unlawfully taken from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.  The forfeiture follows an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.  

The bataar skull, a fossil from the Cretaceous period, which ended approximately 65 million years ago, had been auctioned in Manhattan in 2007 after being unlawfully brought into the United States.  The current owner of the bataar skull, having been informed of its origins and the circumstances of its importation into the United States, has consented to its forfeiture.

The bataar skull is the latest addition to a lengthy list of looted dinosaur fossils the United States Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with its law enforcement partners at HSI, has pursued over the past few years. Since 2012, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has secured through a combination of civil and criminal actions the return and repatriation to Mongolia of several dinosaur fossils that include three full Tyrannosaurus bataar skeletons, a full Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton and another partial Saurolophus, six Oviraptor skeletons, four Gallimimus skeletons, a partial Ankylosaurus skeleton, a Protoceratops skeleton, a composite nest containing miscellaneous dinosaur eggs, and numerous small, unidentified prehistoric lizards and turtles.

“Cultural artifacts such as this bataar skull represent a part of Mongolian national cultural heritage.  It belongs to the people of Mongolia.  These priceless antiquities are not souvenirs to be sold to private collectors or hobbyists,” Glenn Sorge, acting special agent in charge HSI New York. “HSI is committed to working closely with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney's Office to target this illegal activity and return the smuggled items to their countries of origin.”

“We are gratified to add the skull of another Tyrannosaurus bataar to the roster of fossils returned to Mongolia.  Each of these fossils represents a culturally and scientifically important artifact looted from its rightful owner,” Preet Bharara, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.  “Together with our law enforcement partners, we will continue to pursue opportunities to right the wrongs committed when priceless artifacts are stolen.”

According to the allegations in the Civil Complaint unsealed Wednesday:

The Tyrannosaurus bataar is indigenous to – and has only been unearthed in – a specific portion of the Gobi Desert called the Nemegt Basin, in what is now Mongolia.  Mongolian law has long declared dinosaur fossils found within Mongolia to be government property.  Their export from Mongolia without permission of the Government of Mongolia is a violation of Mongolian law.

On or about March 25, 2007, a California-based auction house offered the bataar skull for sale on auction in Manhattan.  The bataar skull had been shipped into the United States in or around June 2006 with United States Customs documents that described it only as “fossil stone pieces.”  At auction, the Bataar Skull was described as native to the “Eurasian continent.”  The bataar skull sold for approximately $230,000 at auction to a California-based buyer.

In 2015, HSI performed a physical examination of the skull and confirmed that it rightfully belongs to the Government of Mongolia and had been illegally imported into the United States.  Upon being informed of the circumstances regarding the bataar skull, the buyer agreed to turn it over to HSI and consented to its forfeiture.

HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, specializing in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen. HSI’s International Operations, through its 62 attaché offices in 46 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 train investigators from other nations and agencies to investigate crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace. Those involved in the illicit trafficking of cultural property, art and antiquities can face prison terms of up to 20 years, fines and possible restitution to purchasers of the items.

Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 7,800 items to more than 30 countries.

Learn more about HSI’s 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 tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 12/17/2015