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Agency quashes sale of Chinese dinosaur eggs

February 16, 2007|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

Likening the case to a plot hatched from a Hollywood script, federal authorities are investigating how a well-preserved nest of fossilized dinosaur eggs ended up at a Los Angeles auction house.

The nest, which included 22 unhatched eggs believed to be at least 65 million years old, were apparently smuggled out of China to be sold here, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.

"Fossil smuggling may seem like a plot twist from a 'Jurassic Park' movie, but how a foreign object made it illegally into the U.S. shows a vulnerability" that can be exploited by criminals and terrorists, said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge of the agency's investigations unit in Los Angeles.

Agents confiscated the eggs last week at Bonhams & Butterfields Auction House after learning of the sale in a December newspaper story. The auction house is cooperating in the investigation.

Fossils and cultural relics are protected by the Chinese government, and removing them without government permission is against the law, Schoch said.

In response to a customs summons, Bonhams & Butterfields contacted the original shipper in Taiwan, who subsequently acknowledged he had no paperwork to establish the eggs' provenance.

The dinosaur nest was unearthed in China's Guangdong Province in 1984. In 2003 an American collector purchased it from a source in Taiwan; it entered this country through Florida, Schoch said.

He declined to discuss what roles the shipper and the collector, identified in the search warrant affidavit as Daniel Chen and Robert DePalma, may have played in the incident. No charges have been filed and no arrests made.

The original shipping label declared the nest's value to be $500, probably to avoid further inspection, investigators said. Experts estimate its worth at $350,000.

The nest is being housed in a cold storage facility in Los Angeles, Schoch said. It is so well preserved that the fossilized remains of the dinosaur embryos are still visible inside the eggs.

They are believed to be those of a predatory raptor that roamed the earth during the Cretaceous Period.

After the investigation concludes, federal authorities will return it to the Chinese government, Schoch said.

Smuggling historical artifacts into the United States is not uncommon, he said, but this is only his second case involving illegally imported dinosaur eggs.

Last year an Australian mineral dealer pleaded guilty to illegally importing hundreds of dinosaur eggs from China to sell at gem and mineral shows.

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francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

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