The United States has returned a stolen, 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus skeleton to Mongolia.
At a ceremony in New York on Monday, US officials formally handed the near-complete skeleton back to representatives from the Mongolian government, prompting an announcement of the construction of the Asian nation’s first dinosaur museum.
The bones were originally seized by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers after a 38-year-old man from Florida sold them at auction for £1 million.
Eric Prokopi - described by investigators as a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils” - admitted smuggling the bones from the UK in March 2010, and assembling them into a full skeleton before sale.
It is believed the bones were originally looted from the Gobi Desert sometime between 1995 and 2005, working their way into Europe via a network of illegal fossil dealers shortly after.
Prokopi apparently managed to smuggle the 8 feet tall, 24 feet long skeleton out of the UK by deliberately mislabelling it as a worthless collection of reptile bones.
US Attorney Preet Bharara said: “We are very pleased to have played a pivotal role in returning Mongolia’s million-dollar baby… Of course, that million-dollar price tag, as high as it is, doesn’t begin to describe the true value of an ancient artefact that is part of the fabric of a country’s natural history and cultural heritage.”
Mongolia President Tsakhia Elbegdorj thanked US authorities for returning the dinosaur, saying it will eventually be displayed as a centrepiece of a new museum called the Central Dinosaur Museum of Mongolia.
Mongolia has strict laws protecting. Fossils they are the property of the state and their export is banned.