Looted Mongolian dinosaur fossils return home with charter flight from USA www.news.mn
A MIAT Mongolian Airlines plane has conducted the first-ever flight from the capital, Ulaanbaatar to the United States, triggering plans for a regular service when the world returns to normal. The flight to Seattle International Airport was a special government-charter with three important tasks: firstly, to provide medical equipment to help the Navajo Nation fight coronavirus, which from the beginning has been successfully managed in Mongolia, with zero domestic cases; secondly, to rescue some 255 nationals who have been stranded in the US since the pandemic struck and ran wild, and, thirdly, to brings home some much older residents – the remains of dinosaurs who roamed the Gobi over 65 million years ago.
Mongolia is famous for its dinosaur remains – not just among palaeontologists, but also with international smugglers; some of the most valuable remains have, as we shall see, ended up belonging to the rich and famous in Beverly Hills.
The fossils, of creatures such as the carnivorous Tarbosaurus Bataar, a relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, originally lived in what is now the vast Gobi desert, but in the Cretaceous was a verdant land with rivers and lakes, with different weather patterns – at the time, India had not smashed into the Eurasian Plate pushing up the Himalayas. The area is rich in dinosaur remains and is known by palaeontologists around the world. It was there in the 1920s and 1930s that American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, known as a prototype Indiana Jones, found the first fossilised dinosaur eggs, and with it proof that dinosaurs were reptiles.
The fossils packed in to the hold of the Mongolian Airlines plane, including two fossilised skulls of Tarbosaurus Bataar, represented the latest success in a decade-long effort to locate and repatriate artefacts.
The non-profit Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs has been working together with both the government of Mongolia and officials through the the US Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) responsible for the investigation of stolen items.
In 2007, Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage acquired the complete skull of a Tarbosaurus Bataar at a public sale in Beverly Hills gallery – this is one of the two on the plane. It is reported that he paid USD 276,000, outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio for the fearsome object. Little did he suspect that the skull had found its way to the City of Angles by a very murky route.
In June 2014, Mr Cage was contacted by US Homeland Security who informed him that the skull may be the property of Mongolia, which had criminalised the export of dinosaur fossils in 1924. The US authorities have made it clear that the actor did nothing wrong. In 2015, he voluntarily handed over the fossil to US officials for eventual return to Mongolia.
The I.M.Chait Gallery, where Nicholas Cage obtained the skull appears to have unwittingly obtained various treasures from convicted Florida-based palaeontologist Eric Prokopi, who has been described as a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils.”
Prokopi is connected with an even more elaborate auction, namely that of a whole Tarbosaurus Bataar skeleton in New York city for USD 1 million in 2012. Mongolia’s then Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Ts.Oyungerel with the support of President Ts.Elbegdorj filed an injunction and the Prokopi auction was rendered void. After intense negotiations, the complete skeleton of Tarbosaurus Bataar was returned to Mongolia along with other items illegally acquired by Eric Prokopi. It was an important national event and the day of the dinosaur’s return, 18 May 2013 was declared Mongolian Dinosaur Day. Initially, the complete remains, thought to be a juvenile measuring 2.4 metres in hight and 7.3 metres in length, were displayed in a special pavilion on Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatar Square, before being moved to the new dinosaur museum on Victory Square along with other priceless fossils – including dinosaur eggs – which had been housed in the old National History Museum.
It is hoped that the latest repatriated remains, including Mr Cage’s former skull will soon be on public display in Ulaanbaatar.