Officials return smuggled dinosaur skeleton to Mongolia

Mongolia's director of their natural history museum Bolortsetseg

Mongolia's director of their natural history museum Bolortsetseg Minjin, left, talks wirh Dr. Philip J. Currie, second left, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology at the University of Alberta, Canada, and attorney Robert Painter, before a repatriation ceremony to return a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, in New York. (May 6, 2013) (Credit: AP)

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The skeleton of a 70-million-year-old tyrannosaurus came to the United States as smuggled contraband following years of looting but will return to its origins in Mongolia for its people to enjoy.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and Homeland Security Department officials Monday returned the dinosaur's nearly complete skeleton to Mongolian officials at a ceremony near the United Nations. The Tyrannosaurus bataar, a smaller cousin to North America's T. rex, was looted from the Gobi Desert from 1995 to 2005, then shipped out of Mongolia illegally between 2005 and 2012, according to officials.

Mongolian officials contacted the U.S. attorney's office to halt the sale of the bones, which drew a $1.05 million bid at a Manhattan auction house last May.

The skeleton was forfeited to U.S. officials.

"That attempted sale was part of a criminal scheme," Bharara said. "A million-dollar price tag, as high as it is, doesn't begin to describe the true value of an ancient artifact that is part of the fabric of a country's natural history and cultural heritage -- priceless."

Homeland Security investigators in October arrested commercial paleontologist Eric Prokopi, 38, of Gainesville, Fla., who imported the bataar skeleton, as well as other fossils. Prokopi pleaded guilty Dec. 27 to related charges. He awaits sentencing but could face up to 17 years in federal prison.

The Mongolian minister of culture, sport and tourism, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, said the more than 20-foot-long and 8-foot-high T. bataar skeleton will be put on display.

"We never had dinosaur museums before," she said. "T. bataar is going to be the first item, the first exhibit in the museum."

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