Technology & Science

Dinosaur to be seized by U.S. Homeland Security

An unusual arrest warrant was issued this week in New York when a U.S. federal judge authorized the Department of Homeland Security to seize a dinosaur sold last month at auction for more than $1 million US and return it to its rightful owners: the government of Mongolia.

70-million-year-old fossil belongs to Mongolia

The skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur that was brought into the U.S. illegally in 2010 and sold at auction last month. A judge has ordered that the fossil be returned to Mongolia. (U.S Attorney Office/Associated Press)

One of the more unusual arrest warrants in U.S. history was issued this week when a federal judge authorized the Department of Homeland Security to seize a dinosaur from an art-storage company in New York City. There's no need for handcuffs, though. It's been dead for 70 million years.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel, of the Southern District of New York, signed the warrant after finding there was "probable cause to believe" that the nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is subject to forfeiture under U.S. laws.

The U.S. filed a lawsuit against the skeletal property a day earlier, seeking to seize it for an eventual return to Mongolia.

It is typical in government seizure cases for the object to be seized to be named as a defendant. But it's not so common for an object to have an alias, in this instance "One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton" is also known as "LOT 49315 listed on Page 92 of The Heritage Auctions May 20, 2012 Natural History Auction Catalog."

Sold at auction for more than $1M US

The 2.4-metre tall, 7.3-metre long skeleton was described in the catalogue as being "a stupendous, museum-quality specimen of one of the most emblematic dinosaurs ever to have stalked this Earth." It is currently held at a Cadogan Tate Fine Art property in the New York City borough of Queens.

A message left with the company Tuesday was not immediately returned.

The lawsuit said the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton was brought in March 2010 from Great Britain to Gainesville, Fla., with erroneous claims that it had originated in the U.K. and was worth only $15,000 US. It sold at auction on May 20, 2012, for more than $1 million, though the sale was contingent upon the outcome of court proceedings.

Jim Halperin, cofounder of Heritage Auctions, the dinosaur's Dallas-based custodian, has said a consignor bought the fossils in good faith and spent a year and considerable expense restoring them.

"We have co-operated in the investigation process for paleontologists to expeditiously examine the skeleton, and we will continue to co-operate with authorities in an ongoing effort to reach a fair and just resolution to this matter," Halperin said about the judge's order.

Federal authorities say five experts viewed the fossil on June 5, agreeing unanimously that the skeleton was a Tyrannosaurus bataar and almost certainly originated in the Nemegt Basin in Mongolia.

Tyrannosaurus bataars were first discovered in 1946 during a joint Soviet-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi Desert in the Mongolian Omnogovi Province. Since 1924, Mongolia has enacted laws declaring fossils to be the property of the government of Mongolia and criminalizing their export from the country.