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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
12/01/2014

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HSI seizes Mongolian dinosaur fossil

NEW YORK — A decree of forfeiture was issued Tuesday in federal court forfeiting a fossilized skull and vertebrae of an Alioramus dinosaur after it was seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Upon its Sept. 4 arrival in the United States from France, the Dinosaur Skull was seized by CBP. Federal authorities then filed a civil action to forfeit the dinosaur skull, alleging that it was stolen Mongolian property that was smuggled into the United States using false declarations. The allegations in the United States’ complaint went uncontested and the court ordered the forfeiture of the dinosaur skull.

The Alioramus was a dinosaur that lived in the late Cretaceous period, approximately 65 to 70 million years ago. It is related to the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Tarbosaurus. The Dinosaur Skull was falsely described as a French replica when it was shipped to the United States by Geofossiles, Inc., a French fossil dealer.

“This case articulates the level of importance placed in identifying the provenance of cultural artifacts and acknowledging patrimony laws. Smugglers will falsify documents and lie about the origin and value of a cultural artifact just to get it across our borders to sell to the highest bidder,” said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge HSI New York. “The forfeiture of this pre-historic fossil highlights HSI’s commitment along with our partners at CBP to assist foreign governments in detecting, deterring and disrupting the flow of priceless stolen foreign art, relics and fossils into the United States.”

“This case highlights the effectiveness of civil forfeiture tools in removing stolen cultural property from the stream of commerce so that it can be returned to its rightful owners,” said, Loretta E. Lynch, United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “Lies and forgeries are no match for the vigilance of our partners at CBP and HSI. Together, we are determined to expose and halt the flow of stolen cultural property entering our ports.” Ms. Lynch thanked the Mongolian government and the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs for their assistance. 

When Geofossiles shipped the Dinosaur Skull to the United States, it falsely described the shipment as a low-value replica made in France. After the Dinosaur Skull was seized, Geofossiles petitioned CBP for its release. In the petition, Geofossiles conceded that the dinosaur skull was a genuine fossil, comprised of 7) percent original material and 30 percent cast to complete the skull. Geofossiles further admitted that the Dinosaur Skull’s country of origin was Mongolia, not France, and attached a contract to sell the piece for $250,000.

Under Mongolian law, significant fossil finds like the Dinosaur Skull are national property and, even if privately owned, cannot be sold to non-Mongolians or permanently exported. Nonetheless, Geofossiles attached to the petition several documents that purported to be Mongolian records authorizing the sale and export of the Dinosaur Skull from Mongolia to a Korean company in 2006. The records supplied by Geofossiles described the shipment as containing an incongruous combination of fossils and traditional Mongolian structures called “gers.” When Mongolian authorities located the original records for this shipment, they confirmed that only the gers were declared. Thus, the records supplied by Geofossiles were falsified to include fossils.

Pursuant to applicable law and Department of Justice guidelines, Mongolia will now have an opportunity to submit a petition to the United States for the return of the Dinosaur Skull.

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 12/03/2014