As some of you might have seen in the media, there is going to be an auction in New York City tomorrow, May 20th 2012. Heritage Auctions is the auction house running the event. The biggest ticket item, and the one that is getting this auction a lot of coverage in the press, is an almost complete skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar, which is being referred to as a T-rex in some stories. The two dinosaurs are very simular to one another. The problem is that this specimen assuredly comes from Mongolia. Thus, it is stolen.
Here is a letter from Dr. Mark Norell, the dinosaur curator at the American Museum of Natural History, explaining the situation:
It is with great concern that I see Mongolian dinosaur materials listed in the upcoming (May 20) Heritage Auctions Natural History catalogue. For the last 22 years I have excavated specimens Mongolia in conjunction with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. I have been an author on over 75 scientific papers describing these important specimens. Unfortunately, in my years in the desert I have witnessed ever increasing illegal looting of dinosaur sites, including some of my own excavations. These extremely important fossils are now appearing on the international market. In the current catalogue Lot 49317 (a skull of Saichania) and Lot 49315 (a mounted Tarbosaurus skeleton) clearly were excavated in Mongolia as this is the only locality in the world where these dinosaurs are known. The copy listed in the catalogue, while not mentioning Mongolia specifically (the locality is listed as Central Asia) repeatedly makes reference to the Gobi Desert and to the fact that other specimens of dinosaurs were collected in Mongolia. As someone who is intimately familiar with these faunas, these specimens were undoubtedly looted from Mongolia. There is no legal mechanism (nor has there been for over 50 years) to remove vertebrate fossil material from Mongolia. These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia. As a professional paleontologist, am appalled that these illegally collected specimens (with no associated documents regarding provenance) are being are being sold at auction.
Dr. Mark A. Norell
Chairman and Curator
Division of Paleontology
So far the only response from the auction house has been ‘we didn’t break any US laws, why didn’t the Mongolian government contact us before?’ and my favorite, and I will quote here: Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that.
What can be done? Probably not much, sadly. But it is important that people realize it is /NOT/ okay to take these materials out of their countries of origin with out working with the local governments. That is true for both for profit enterprises such as this auction but also for purely scientific studies. Most of the mongolian material at the AMNH currently is on long term loans, and many amazing specimens have already been returned to Mongolia.
It is very upsetting that the vast majority of articles in the media about this specimen and the auction make NO mention of the illegal source of the material. Spread the word! And please, never buy vertebrate fossils from private collectors.