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Fossils dealer smuggled Tyrannosaurus skeleton worth $1m

Eric Prokopi is accused of acquiring the ancient remains from Mongolia between 2010 and 2012

A self-styled “commercial palaeontologist” faces up to 17 years in jail after he admitted illegally smuggling dinosaur skeletons into the US.

Eric Prokopi – who ran a business called “Everything Earth” trading in dinosaur fossils from his Florida home – is accused of acquiring the remains from Mongolia between 2010 and 2012, and bringing them to America illegally. “He then sold or attempted to sell these fossils to others,” said the US District Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

At the heart of the case is an 8ft (2.4m) tall, 24ft long skeleton of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar, which was sold at auction for more than $1m (£619,000) in May.

The bones were looted from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, where local laws prohibit the removal of dinosaur fossils for profit. A battle over the remains led to their seizure and charges against Prokopi, 38, who confessed before a judge on Thursday.

He agreed to surrender the remains and other fossils, including the skeleton of a duck-billed Saurolophus, two oviraptors, and a Tyrannosaurus skeleton believed to be in the UK. A mostly complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton was found at Prokopi’s home, in addition to a collection of other bones, according to the New York Post.

“It is among the largest dinosaur shopping lists you’ll see,” said the Assistant US Attorney, Martin Bell.

Prokopi pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to violate US laws by smuggling dinosaur remains from China, a charge regarding entry of goods by means of false statements and one covering transportation of goods taken by fraud. He faces up to 17 years in prison. 

Part of the credit for Prokopi’s undoing goes to a palaeontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, Mark Norell, who saw the auction listing for the Tyrannosaurus and wrote an open letter asserting the bones had “undoubtedly” been looted from Mongolia, according to the New York Times.