What's the penalty for smuggling dinosaur bones? A lot more than you'd think

A man who illegally exported a Tyrannosaurus skeleton from Mongolia has plead guilty to all charges and now faces up to 17 years in prison. As magistrate judge Ronald L. Ellis' ruling suggests, it's no small matter to engage in fraud of this kind.

The skeleton, which sold for more than $1 million via Heritage Auctions in May, was described as a "superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton," a remnant of a long-extinct animal that "ruled the food chain of the ancient flood plains that are today's Gobi Desert."

Too bad it got into the country illegally. The New York Times reports:

The odd story of the Tyrannosaur on the auction block surfaced several months ago when a paleontologist, Mark A. Norell of the American Museum of Natural History, noticed the listing in the Heritage catalog.

He wrote an open letter about the 24-foot-long skeleton, saying, "These specimens were undoubtedly looted from Mongolia."

Within days, the president of Mongolia had obtained a court order to block the auction of the skeleton, which had been sold but not transferred.

At about the same time, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, filed a civil complaint seeking the forfeiture of the skeleton so that it could be returned to Mongolia, where dinosaur skeletons are deemed government property.

That request cited several experts who said the particularized coloring of the bones meant that they had come from a specific area in Mongolia known as the Nemegt Basin.

Under Mongolian law, the removal of fossils is a crime; violators may be jailed and fined.

Mr. [Eric] Prokopi contested the forfeiture request from federal officials but was eventually charged with the criminal offenses.

During the trial, Prokopi admitted to shipping the skeleton from the Gobi: "I forwarded a few shipments of fossils of Mongolian origin from Great Britain to the U.S. that were mislabeled," he said. "I imported and transported Mongolian fossils that were exported from Mongolia without the proper permits."

Prokopi was told to return to court in April for his sentencing where he could be handed a 17-year prison term.

But as part of a plea agreement, he will hand over the Tyrannosaur skeleton that was put up for auction, two additional Tyrannosaur skeletons, and hadrosaur remnants. He also agreed to forfeit two Oviraptor skeletons that were seized from his home in Florida.

More here.

Top image via extravaganzi.