Mongolia tries to stop sale of rare dinosaur fossil

Monday, May 21, 2012 - 7:09pm

(CNN) -- It's no bloody, foot-stomping battle to the death, but a legal fight befitting a mighty dinosaur is playing out on two continents as Mongolia's president tries to block the sale of a nearly complete skeleton of a 24-foot-long dinosaur that roamed Central Asia 80 million years ago.

Despite a Texas judge's order barring the sale at the behest of Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, a New York auction house on Sunday unloaded the rare skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar -- also known as Tyrannosaurus bataar -- to an undisclosed buyer for $1,052,500.

An attorney for Mongolia tried to stop the sale, standing up and waving a cell phone with the Texas judge waiting on the other side, but auction officials declined to stop the sale and escorted the lawyer outside.

"This is a once in a generation dinosaur and collectors definitely responded to both its rarity and its fierce beauty," David Herskowitz of Heritage Auctions said in a statement after the sale. "A dino like this is rare to come across in any condition, let alone one as pristine as this."

The dispute is the latest in a series of battles between national governments and private collectors over cultural artifacts, including rare fossils. Governments such as Mongolia's are concerned about maintaining control over fossil and cultural relics while scientists worry about such items disappearing into private collections.

"At stake are the heritage, history and culture of a sovereign nation," attorneys for Tsakhia said in a filing asking for the restraining order.

Tsakhia had sought to stop the auction, saying it would be illegal to sell the fossil if it had been recovered from his country.

While Heritage Auctions didn't say where the fossil had been unearthed, paleontologist Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University said it is almost certainly Mongolian. Most if not all of the examples of the species recovered so far have come from a single geological formation in Mongolia called the Nemegt Formation.

"From what any of us can tell from the photographs on the auction site, the specimen is a typical Nemegt Tarbosaurus from Mongolia," he said.

Although Heritage Auctions went ahead with the sale, it is describing it as contingent on a resolution of the Texas court case.

"We respect the various opinions on the subject and wish to protect the legal rights of all parties involved," Heritage Auctions President Greg Rohan said in a statement Sunday.

"We have legal assurances from our reputable consignors that the specimen was obtained legally. As far as we know, the Mongolian government has not produced any evidence that the piece originated in its territory, but the final determination will be up to the American legal system," he said.

In legal filings, Tsakhia's attorneys cited media reports in which Herskowitz was quoted as saying the skeleton had been recovered in the Gobi Desert, a part of which lies within Mongolia.

The filing also cited dinosaur experts who believe the specimen, which is 75% complete, probably came from Mongolia. It had been stored in England until it was brought to the United States last year, according to Heritage Auctions.

Tarbosaurus bataar was similar to, but slightly smaller than, the better-known Tyrannosaurus rex. Like its North American counterpart, the dinosaur was a dominant carnivore that lived in the Cretaceous period. While the auction house referred to it as a Tyrannosaurus, most scientists consider the name Tarbosaurus to now be correct, Witmer said. While separate species, the two were "very closely related," he said.

Many paleontologists disapprove of the sale of fossils, saying museums are often unable to afford the frequently high prices at auction, according to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The group also says that placing important specimens in private collections beyond the reach of researchers and the public could harm scientific inquiry and dampen the enthusiasm of children to pursue careers in science.
 

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