Nicolas Cage recently returned a rare and stolen dinosaur skull to the U.S. government. The illegally imported Tyrannosaurus bataar head bought by the actor in 2007 was turned over to Homeland Security officials.
Cage’s publicist, Alex Schack, recently confirmed the National Treasure star purchased the Tyrannosaurus bataar skull for $276,000 at a natural history-themed auction held by Beverly Hills-based I.M. Chait Gallery eight years ago.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) investigators determined the dinosaur skull was brought into the United States illegally, and the Mongolian government is the lawful owner of the fossil. The artifact is now in the hands of the Customs Enforcement division of DHS, which specializes in stolen antiquities and cultural relics.
“Cultural artifacts such as this bataar skull represent a part of Mongolian national heritage. It belongs to the people of Mongolia,” said ICE Acting Special Agent-in-Charge Glenn Sorge.
When the 67-million-year-old dinosaur relic was originally purchased, Cage received a certificate of authenticity from I.M. Chait. In 2014, DHS informed Cage that the skull he bought may have been stolen from Mongolia. After which, the actor agreed to have government authorities examine it.
As the actor and the gallery were unaware the fossil was stolen, neither will be charged with a crime.
David Herskowitz, a natural history consultant, organized the original sale through the auction company and believed at the time the skull was properly imported.
In an interview with ABC News, he said the Tyrannosaurus bataar skull was closely examined by several scientists and determined to be from “central Asia.” Based on those opinions, he still thinks it is possible that the skull is being misidentified as being specifically from Gobi Desert-region of Mongolia.
The 32-inch dinosaur head was brought into the U.S. through Japan by paleontologist Eric Prokopi. The customs document that accompanied the skull simply described it as fossilized stone pieces.
In 2012, Prokopi was accused and ultimately plead guilty of participating in a scheme to illegally import various dinosaur fossils. He became known among New York prosecutors as the “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils.”
The criminal paleontologist was sentenced to three months in prison and forced to turn over several dinosaur fossils, including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton. It has not been definitely determined if the dinosaur skull bought by Nicolas Cage is connected to Prokopi.
Under laws enacted by the Mongolian government in 1924, all fossils found in the Gobi Desert are considered government property and cannot be exported. Dinosaur bones, including Tyrannosaurus bataar, were first found within the region in 1946 and since then over 30 specimens, including 15 skulls, have been uncovered.
The Tyrannosaurus bataar is a close relative to the North American Tyrannosaurus rex, another bipedal, meat-eating dinosaur. The prehistoric animal also known as Tarbosaurus bataar and is believed to have lived during the Cretaceous period. Scientists speculate the species is much older than rex and may have been one of the last surviving dinosaurs, disappearing approximately 65 million years ago.
Kevin Padian is among a community of paleontologists who are concerned that private sales of fossils make it more difficult to study how dinosaurs lived.
“We’re losing science, we’re losing education, we’re losing valuable specimens,” he told the New York Times after Cage bought the dinosaur skull in 2007.
Over the past three years, the U.S. attorney’s office in New York has been diligently working to return stolen artifacts to Mongolia. In 2013, a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton was returned to the country after being sold in New York for $1.05 million.
[Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW]