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September 14, 2009Washington, DC, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE, CBP return prehistoric fossils to China

Cultural artifacts millions of years old were found by CBP officers and investigated by ICE

WASHINGTON, D.C. - At a ceremony at the Embassy of the People's Republic of China, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) returned prehistoric fossils to the Chinese. The fossils were seized by the U.S. government during routine inspections of goods coming into the United States and some are the subject of an ongoing investigation into violations of export and import laws.

The fossils, which included bones of a saber-toothed cat and Psittacosaurus lujiatunesis  and eggs of several other dinosaurs, had been shipped through Chicago and Norfolk, Va., without proper documentation. Both fossil caches were seized by CBP. The fossils in Chicago were evaluated by experts at the Field Museum, who determined them to be animal remains dating back as far as 100 million years. The 24 fossilized dinosaur eggs were authenticated by experts from the Virginia Museum of Natural History and determined to about 60 million years old.

"These pre-historic fossils are an invaluable part of the history of the People's Republic of China and they will undoubtedly contribute to the scientific exploration of that nation's past," said John Morton, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary for ICE. "The attempt to remove them from China ran up against a network of national and international customs laws that are in place to protect against the theft of cultural property. We are pleased to return them to their rightful owners, the people of China."

"Through the facilitation and enforcement of U.S. trade laws, these artifacts will provide the People's Republic of China a key to their past," said Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner for International Affairs Allen Gina. "Customs and Border Protection is pleased to work in partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce U.S. customs law and to return priceless artifacts to their lawful owner."

Deputy Chief of Mission Xie Feng of the Chinese Embassy expressed the heartfelt gratitude to the U.S. government for its efforts to return the fossils to China. "In recent years, China and the U.S. have developed close cooperation in law enforcement and made steady progress and prominent achievements, particularly in the fields as counter-terrorism, drug enforcement as well as combating other transnational crimes," said DCM Xie Feng. "Such law enforcement cooperation will benefit the safety of our countries and the protection of our people's lives and property."

CBP officers discovered the first cache of fossils in three separate parcels at the Chicago O'Hare International Mail Facility in December 2006 and October 2007. The parcels were seized by CBP when X-ray images of the parcels did not match the declared contents and handed over to ICE for further investigation.

ICE contacted the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, which determined that the fossils were cultural relics that should not have been exported from China. The Ministry of Land and Resources in China requested the return of the fossils. The items were therefore seized on behalf of the U.S. government for repatriation to China.

The fossilized dinosaur eggs came in through Dulles Airport in the Washington Metropolitan Area and were shipped from there to Richmond, Va., where they were seized by CBP officers and determined to be protected property.

Chinese officials said the Chinese Government will send experts to the U.S. to escort the fossils back to China, where they will be placed in the Geological Museum of China and well preserved for scientific research.

ICE, the largest investigative agency of DHS, investigates cultural artifacts that appear to have been imported illegally and often show up for sale in the U.S. market. CBP is the unified border agency within DHS charged with the management, control and protection of U.S. borders at and between official ports of entry.

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Updated: 04/15/2016