In 2007, Nicholas Cage outbid fellow actor Leonardo Dicaprio for a 67-million-year-old skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, a close relative of the T. rex, paying $US276,000 for what he called “a ferocious-looking addition to his fossil collection.” Now, this fossil may be one of those that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) aims to seize as part of an investigation into dinosaur smuggling.
Cage purchased the skull from a natural history director at the IM Chait gallery, who declined at the time to reveal his source for the artifact. It has now been revealed that the source was Eric Prokopi, who now faces 17 years in prison for falsifying customs documents to import illegally obtained fossils from Mongolia. Prokopi also imported a nearly-complete T. Rex skeleton that sold for nearly $1 million at auction in 2012.
The Sydney Morning Herald explains:
In fact, Prokopi’s fossils were the tip of a very large iceberg. Poachers have been operating in Mongolia and other dinosaur-rich countries, like China and Argentina, for years. Travelling on motorbikes and armed with crude digging tools, they wait until the coast is clear, then descend on sites often identified by legitimate palaeontologists and divest them of any bones they think valuable.
”We know they’ve been there,” says palaeontologist Mark Norell, a veteran of more than 20 digs in Mongolia’s Gobi desert, ”because these sites are in the middle of nowhere and when we return to them there’s trash everywhere, and chunks of fossils just discarded, along with beer cans.”
The looters then sell the fossils to middle men who arrange for them to be smuggled out of the country to Europe, America, Japan and other parts of the world where they’re sold at auction houses, antique fairs or fossil shows, or over the internet.