The Gobi Desert is the only place Tyrannosaurus bataar has ever been found. Head to tail, an adult measured up to 40 feet. It had as many as 64 teeth, some more than three inches long. It was the Gobi’s prime predator. A juvenile, Prokopi’s tarbosaurus measured eight feet tall, yet it was big enough to cause a stir. Any paleontologist could have told Heritage where Prokopi’s bones had come from; the company’s idle research into provenance revealed the corner cutting that has dogged the auction business for years. “Prokopi had been a dealer for more than a decade, and he had a good reputation,” Greg Rohan, Heritage Auction’s president, told me. “He warranted in writing that he had clear title. He lied to us colossally, and now he’s paying for it.”
Prokopi’s tarbosaurus was set for auction in May 2012. Paleontologists have discovered only about 20 intact specimens of tarbosaurus, so its appearance in such a public sale woke the scientific community. Mark Norell, chairman of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, crafted an open letter denouncing the auction and e-mailed it to a lengthy list of influential contacts in science and the media.
In Ulaanbaatar, political leaders were taking steps of even greater import. An engaging academic with a Stanford degree, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba served as an advisor to the Mongolian president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. When she learned of the proposed auction, Tsedevdamba phoned Elbegdorj. “Why are you calling me about dinosaurs?” the president asked. Tsedevdamba said it was a matter of Mongolian sovereignty. “Fossils are protected in the Mongolian constitution,” she argued. “It’s a piece of land, a piece of our territory. It belongs to us.”
Parliamentary elections were being held in 2012 in Mongolia, and Prokopi’s dinosaur could spark a debate on national identity, with Elbegdorj and his party at its center. Elbegdorj believed the time was right to take a symbolic, international stand.
The tarbosaurus sold at auction on May 20 in Manhattan for $1.05 million, to a New York real estate developer named Coleman Burke. But Burke never received it. Agents from the Department of Homeland Security impounded the skeleton, while American and Mongolian investigators began unraveling the path the tarbosaurus had taken from the Gobi to Gainesville.
Mongolian border control documents confirmed that Prokopi had traveled to Mongolia in 2008, 2009 and 2011. The case’s lead investigator in Mongolia, Narankhuu T., told me Prokopi’s local partners had broken down the dinosaur into several boxes and trucked it to Ulaanbaatar, labeling the contents as minerals or salt. From there they likely shipped the boxes on commercial flights to Japan. A source in the U.S. Attorney’s Office told me Prokopi had partnered with British and Japanese dealers. They sent the tarbosaurus from Japan to England and then to the U.S., obfuscating its origin in a web of falsified shipping documents that took months to untangle. Prokopi spent almost two years at his Gainesville home, cleaning and assembling the tarbosaurus bones into a standing skeleton. Five months after the Heritage auction, federal agents arrived at his home.They arrested Prokopi on charges of conspiring to illegally import fossils, making false statements to customs officials and transporting illegal goods. At the time of his arrest, the U.S. Attorney’s Office characterized Prokopi as a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils.” Typically, the government had either misunderstood the subject matter or overstated its case. The truth was the market in illegal Mongolian fossils involved scores of individuals like Prokopi, enabled by online sales outlets, lax enforcement and the biggest auction houses in the world.
But it was Prokopi alone who was in jeopardy as the doors to Magistrate Court 5A opened. Lumbering toward the defendant’s table, he looked like he could use a drink. He looked like a fall guy.