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Saving this dinosaur took a skeleton crew

An urgent email from Mongolia. Frantic phone calls from Texas. A court order in New York. When a possibly looted Tyrannosaurus fossil went up for auction, an unlikely team sprang into action.

January 14, 2013|By Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times
  • A Florida man pleaded guilty last month to smuggling and other charges related to this Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, which originated in Mongolia.
A Florida man pleaded guilty last month to smuggling and other charges related… (Associated Press )

The urgent message went well beyond Robert Painter's usual areas of legal expertise — personal injury, commercial disputes, medical malpractice.

In less than 48 hours, the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, a fierce cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex, would be up for auction.

"Sorry for the late notice," the email said. "Is there anything we can do to legally stop this?"

The president of Mongolia, whom Painter had met 10 years before at a public policy conference, was now asking the Houston lawyer to block the sale of a fossil that scientists believed had been looted from the Gobi Desert. The auction catalog described the specimen:

"The quality of the preservation is superb, with wonderful bone texture and delightfully mottled grayish bone color. In striking contrast are those deadly teeth, long and frightfully robust, in a warm woody brown color, the fearsome, bristling mouth and monstrous jaws leaving one in no doubt as to how the creature came to rule its food chain."

The sheer size and condition of the fossil seemed guaranteed to fetch a seven-figure price. When Painter read the email May 18, it was already 6:30 p.m. on a Friday. The auction was Sunday.

In the days that followed, Painter, a New York auctioneer, a Texas judge, federal prosecutors, the Mongolian president and a self-described "commercial paleontologist" would come together somewhat like the skeleton they were fighting for, disparate parts brought together through dogged effort and mysterious circumstances.

The fight would play out in federal courts in a case known as United States of America vs. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton.

***

Since 1924, the Mongolian constitution has classified dinosaur fossils as "culturally significant," meaning they cannot be taken from the country without government permission. Over the years, the punishment for illegally keeping or smuggling dinosaur bones has varied from up to seven years in prison to 500 hours of forced labor or paying up to 500,000 tugriks, the Mongolian currency. (That's about $356.50.)

Cultural heritage is a sensitive subject for a people who, their history of Genghis Khan's empire-building notwithstanding, saw powerful, aggressive neighbors invade their lands repeatedly.

After advertising for the auction caught the attention of paleontologists worldwide, Mongolian officials and journalists quickly learned of the fossil with the "delightfully mottled grayish bone color."

"The dinosaur has the color of the Gobi sand," said Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, an advisor to Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. "Such color is very particular and familiar to us and belongs to this country."

On May 18, as Tsedevdamba was preparing to leave her home in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, for a meeting, her husband, a science enthusiast, pointed out a news report he'd found online: A Tyrannosaurus bataar was going to be auctioned in New York.

Auctioned fossils are usually too expensive for universities to buy, and private sellers typically don't provide enough details on how or where they got them. That leaves many of the bones in the hands of wealthy fossil buffs, or museums that look the other way.

"Technically, public institutions are neither ethically allowed to own poached specimens, nor are scientists supposed to publish on poached specimens," said Philip Currie, a University of Alberta paleontologist who studied the Gobi Desert region for 15 years. "In other words, they become scientifically useless."

The Tyrannosaurus bataar was 24 feet long, stood 8 feet high and weighed two tons. Still, the beast was only two-thirds grown when it died 70 million years ago.

Though it never grew into a 34-foot adult, the Tyrannosaurus thrived on the abundant prey attracted to the Nemegt Basin, then a lush river plain that straddled what is today the Gobi Desert on the Mongolia-China border. The carnivore's main competitors were its own kind.

The creature's jaw still carries bite marks, apparently inflicted by another Tyrannosaurus bataar.

These predators were "scrappy," Currie said. "They weren't overly playful."

After her husband pointed out the news story, Tsedevdamba opened her email to alert the Mongolian Academy of Sciences' representative in New York, but the representative had already sent her a panicked note asking what to do about the impending sale. She quickly scheduled a meeting with President Elbegdorj.

Soon after, the representative relayed a demand from the president to Heritage Auctions: Cancel the sale. The auction house refused.

The Mongolian government turned to Painter. He had done some work for the Mongolian government in the past, but "I've never done anything to do with dinosaurs before."

His first challenge that Friday evening was finding a judge. Though the auction was to take place in New York, Heritage Auctions is based in Dallas, so he reached out to colleagues there. After about 20 calls, success. A judge agreed to see him Saturday.

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