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U.S. takes dinosaur skeleton into custody

posted 22 Jun 2012, 14:43 by Mpelembe   [ updated 22 Jun 2012, 14:44 ]

United States government takes custody of a dinosaur skeleton that is the subject of an international ownership dispute.

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (JUNE 22, 2012) (REUTERS) - The U.S. government seized a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton in New York on Friday (June 22), that is at the center of an international legal dispute.

The skeleton is said to have been discovered in Mongolia 65 years ago.

A federal judge in New York signed a warrant that allows the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to seize the skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus-bataar, an Asian cousin of the North American Tyrannosaurus rex - from Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

Federal agents took the skeleton into custody from a Queens art storage facility and moved it to an undisclosed location.

Robert Painter, a Houston attorney who represents Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, painted two scenarios that could occur as the case moves forward.

"The first way would be if no one makes a claim in the federal proceeding, then the U.S. government could move to a default judgment within a couple of months. In which point a judge grants that it could be returned to Mongolia this year," Painter said.

"If someone does make a claim like Eric Prokopi or heritage auctions or anyone else, then it would actually be litigated in federal court like a regular lawsuit," Painter said.

Eric Prokopi, a 37-year-old Florida resident, says he put the skeleton together at a great personal expense before it was sold at auction.

At the request of the Mongolian government, a U.S. District judge in Dallas issued a restraining order preventing the skeleton from being moved or the ownership transferred while the dispute is pending.

The skeleton - 8 feet (2.4m) tall and 24 feet (7.3m) long - has been stored in crates in New York City since Heritage sold it to an unidentified buyer for more than $1 million (USD) on May 20th.

Painter said President Elbegdorgj is "very grateful for the cooperation of the U.S. government and he realizes it's a great example for the rule of law between our two countries."

"This procedure that the U.S. attorney has chosen to use will actually expedite the process of legally determining the ownership. And once that ownership is determined we're confident, that very quickly this dinosaur will be back in Mongolia," Painter added.

Bolortsetseg Minjin is part of a team of paleontologists who verified that the skeleton is a Tyrannosaurus-bataar removed from the western Gobi Desert in Mongolia between 1995 and 2005.

"Each species of dinosaurs have specific kind of shapes and anatomy that determines what kind of genus and species level, we can actually say it," Minjin explained.

"And in terms of where it came from, this type of dinosaur preservation, the coloration is very distinct in specifically the type of fossil being found in Mongolia," she added.

Federal officials said smugglers made false statements about the skeleton when it was imported into the United States from Britain in 2010. The skeleton did not originate in Britain nor was its value only $15,000 (USD) as claimed, they said.

The skeleton was discovered in 1946 during a joint Soviet-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia's Omnogovi Province. Mongolia has had laws in place since 1924 prohibiting the export of dinosaur fossils that are considered national treasures and government property.

Heritage Auctions and the Mongolian government agreed in May to jointly investigate the ownership of the skeleton.

On Friday (June 22) Heritage Auctions released a written statement saying that it "will continue to work with our cosigner, Eric Prokopi."