NEW YORK -- It's bad enough to go from roaming the earth as a fearsome predator to being uprooted and dragged across three continents, but to end up in a basement in Queens?
No wonder the Tyrannosaurus bataar was broken up. Literally. But not for long.
Prosecutors and customs officials Monday loaded up boxes containing chunks of the 70-million-year-old dinosaur to ship him home to Mongolia, ending an odyssey driven by fossil hunters whose attempt to sell the skeleton led to their downfall and Tyrannosaurus bataar's resurrection.
"We are very pleased to have played a pivotal role in returning Mongolia's million-dollar baby," the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said at a ceremony marking what customs officials said was one of the most important fossil repatriations in years.
It wasn't an easy thing to organize, as the Los Angeles Times explained in January, shortly after Gainesville, Fla., paleontologist Eric Prokopi pleaded guiilty to illegally importing fossilized remains of numerous dinosaurs that had been smuggled out of their homelands. As part of a plea deal, Prokopi agreed to forfeit the prized Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, as well as numerous other fossils he possessed.
An attempt last spring to auction off the Tyrannosaurus bataar -- which when assembled is 24 feet long, about 8 feet high, and weighs in at 2 tons -- put investigators onto Prokopi, who had imported the skeleton and other fossils from a dealer in Great Britain. Prosecutors accused him of lying about what he was shipping into the United States and undervaluing the items.
In fact, the bones of the Tyrannosaurus bataar were valued by Prokopi at just $15,000 when he received them in 2010, a steal for a nearly complete skeleton of a beast that ruled the food chain of the ancient floodplains that are today's Gobi Desert. "This is an incredible, complete skeleton, painstakingly excavated and prepared," read the catalogue for the auction house that sold the bones last May for more than $1 million. "It is a stupendous, museum-quality specimen of one of the most emblematic dinosaurs ever to have stalked this earth."
The sale was quickly nullified as prosecutors, the Mongolian government, and customs officials unraveled the chain of people and events that had led to Tyrannosaurus bataar ending up as a bunch of bones on the auction block.
After its sale was nixed, Mongolia's government formally requested the return of the fossil, which experts believe was excavated from the Gobi Desert sometime between 1995 and 2005. The coloring of the bones -- grayish as opposed to the dark brown or black attributed to North American dinosaur fossils -- convinced paleontologists that the fossil was from Mongolia, the only country where Tyrannosaurus bataar bones have turned up.