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maandag, mei 21, 2012

Stop the Tarbosaurus Auction!

The mounted Tarbosaurus skeleton slated to be auctioned tomorrow. Image via Heritage Auctions.

Tomorrow, a tyrannosaur will go up for auction in New York City. It shouldn?t. The Tarbosaurus ? lot 49315 ? was illegally collected and smuggled out of Mongolia.

Fossil theft is a major problem. It can happen anywhere, but dinosaur poaching is especially persistent and pernicious in China and Mongolia. Prime specimens are regularly ripped from the rock to be sold to private individuals elsewhere around the world, all against the heritage laws meant to regulate the responsible collection and curation of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. (In 2009, the United States government returned to China a cache of fossils that had been stolen from that country.) As explained to me by paleontologist and Mongolian Academy of Sciences representative Bolortsetseg Minjin, Mongolia only grants permission for fossil collection to reputable scientific establishments. ?Anything against that is illegal,? she said. And excavated fossils either remain in Mongolia, or, with the permission of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, may be studied and displayed elsewhere under temporary loans.

There is no doubt the Tarbosaurus in question came from Mongolia. All the major Tarbosaurus specimens we know of have been found there. And, according to the specimen?s official description, ?The dino was discovered within the past decade and has been in storage in England, still in its field jackets, for the last 2-1/2 years.?� Mongolia had fossil collection regulations a decade ago, just as they do today, and the fact that this undocumented specimen went from the field to a private collection outside Mongolia is a sure sign that the specimen was illegally collected and smuggled elsewhere.

The tyrannosaur ? as well as a set of several other Mongolian dinosaur specimens ? was scheduled for auction several weeks ago. During the past forty eight hours, Mongolian officials and paleontologists have been rallying to stop the auction. Elbegdorj Tsakhia, president of Mongolia, issued a statement yesterday questioning the details of how the Tarbosaurus was collected. If the dinosaur really was discovered in Mongolia?s Gobi Desert, the statement noted, ?President Elbegdorj Tsakhia said that it was illegal to auction the T-Rex and the fossil must be returned to Mongolia.? And American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Mark Norell, who is an expert on Mongolia?s dinosaurs and has frequently excavated fossils there, wrote a letter to Heritage Auctions affirming that the Mongolian dinosaurs slated for auction were almost certainly excavated illegally:

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 sold at auction. [You can see the entire letter at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.]

Other paleontologists, volunteers, and concerned parties have been adding their signatures to an online petition to stop the auction, created by paleontologist Neil Kelley. These dinosaurs do not belong in someone?s mansion or at a corporate headquarters. They should be returned to their country of origin. ?If we can succeed, the best thing for those specimens is to go back to the country. That?s who they belong to,? Minjin said.

But Heritage Auctions may not budge. When I asked Minjin if the auction house showed any sign of cooperating with the Mongolian government, she said that their response ?wasn?t really encouraging.? Now that several statements from Heritage Auctions have been published, I can see what she means.

The president of Heritage Auctions, Greg Rohan, wrote a snippy letter in response to the online petition trying to save the dinosaur for science. ?You should all be aware that this auction has been publicicized [sic] broadly for 4 weeks,?�Rohan wrote ?and the Mongolian Governments request issued today less than 48 hours before the auction is unreasonable and inappropriate.? As if the timing of the protest has anything to do with whether the dinosaurs were obtained illegally or not. And, strangely, Rohan claims that the Tarbosaurus was discovered at a different time than what the auction?s official listing states. While the dinosaur?s description is clear that the tyrannosaur was excavated ?within the past decade?, Rohan claimed that ?Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that.? That?s quite a discrepancy, and I have no reason to take Rohan?s word for it. Based on what the official documents state ? and the fact that no one even knew that tyrannosaurs existed in the Gobi until Tarbosaurus was described in 1955 ? the dinosaur in question was undoubtedly collected during a time when Mongolia?s heritage laws were already in place.

Frustratingly, despite the fact that the Mongolian dinosaurs were illegally acquired and transported, other countries do not necessarily have laws forbidding the import or sale of fossils that have been improperly obtained. The excavation of transport of the Tarbosaurus was illegal, but, now that the dinosaur is here, the dinosaur?s sale might be legal. And Heritage Auctions has not been swayed by the appeals of the Mongolian government and the scientific community. In a statement to Dan Vergano?s Science Fair blog at USA Today, lawyer Carl Soller ? who represents Heritage Auctions ? said that there appeared to be no legal boundaries to the dinosaur?s auction tomorrow. ?Our client has no reason to believe that any laws enforced by the United States have been violated,? Soller said, ?and we are unaware that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia.? The auction is still on.

Whether or not the dinosaur was looted seems irrelevant to Heritage Auctions. They want to keep their centerpiece for tomorrow?s auction ? a tyrannosaur they expect to go for about a million dollars. And the company seems unmoved by the implication that such sales only fuel the impression that dinosaurs can rake in massive amounts of cash ? a perception that gives more impetus to poachers and thieves who trash field sites for specimens which wind up as status symbols for celebrities.

The Tarbosaurus, Saichania, and other Mongolian dinosaur specimens should be pulled from auction. Rohan?s statement that it is ?unreasonable and inappropriate? to protest the auction is a loathsome and limp response. The timing of the objection is irrelevant. These fossils were illegally collected, and auctioning them off only fuels additional criminal activity. To put the dinosaurs on the block tomorrow would be a completely reprehensible action by Heritage Auctions, and I don?t believe that it would be all that difficult to pull the controversial specimens from the schedule.

Fossil poaching is a major threat to paleontology, and robs scientifically-significant specimens from everyone. Speak out against the auction. Sign the petition calling for a stop to the dinosaur auctions, and email Heritage Auctions via These dinosaurs are part of Mongolia?s natural history, and that of our planet. They should be treated as such, and not as home decor for the affluent.


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