NEW YORK: A dinosaur dispute is brewing between the Mongolian government and an American auction house, which sold a fossil of a fearsome T. Rex relative despite a court order not to.
The 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long skeleton of a Tyannosaurus bataar — or tarbosaurus, a name that means “alarming lizard” — went for $1,052,500 Sunday at a New York auction, says Heritage Auctions, which hasn’t identified the buyer or seller. But the sale is contingent on the outcome of the Dallas-based auction house’s court fight with Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, the auction house said.
Elbegdorj says the fossil — a nearly complete skeleton of a two-legged, fanged beast that stalked Central Asia about 80 million years ago — may belong to his country. Heritage says that it was assured the specimen was obtained legally, and that Mongolia hasn’t established the fossil’s origins lie there.
The auction came a day after a Dallas judge ordered Heritage not to sell the specimen while the case played out — and the sale happened even with Texas state District Judge Carlos R. Cortez listening via cellphone, said Elbegdorj lawyer Robert Painter. He said Monday he planned to ask the judge to find that Heritage defied his ruling and hold the auction house in contempt of court.
“It’s an order, not a suggestion,” Painter said by phone. “I think Heritage Auctions has a lot of explaining to do.”
Heritage President Greg Rohan said in a statement Sunday that the auctioneers “respect the various opinions on the subject and wish to protect the legal rights of all parties involved.”
About 75 percent complete and assembled so it’s ready for display, the fossil is “a once-in-a-generation” opportunity for collectors, Heritage natural history director David Herskowitz said in a release. He told the Daily Mail of London last week that the skeleton was found more than a decade ago in the Gobi desert and is owned by a fossil collector from Dorset, a county in Britain’s southwest.
News of the sale stirred alarm in Mongolia, which bans the exporting of dinosaur bones and fossils. While the tarbosaurus skeleton’s discovery site hasn’t been disclosed, much of the Gobi desert is in Mongolia, and Elbegdorj’s court papers include a statement from an American Museum of Natural History paleontologist saying that Mongolia is the only place in the world where the tarbosaurus is known to be found.
“At stake are the heritage, history and culture of a sovereign nation,” Elbegdorj’s court papers say.
Rohan said in a statement that Heritage has “legal assurances from our reputable consignors that the specimen was obtained legally.”
While the judge hasn’t yet ruled on the heart of the dispute, he ordered Heritage not to auction or transfer the fossil to anyone for now.
“The skeleton is inherently unique and irreplaceable, and if it is sold to a bona fide purchaser, it will likely be unable to be recovered” by the Mongolian government, Cortez wrote.
A hearing is set for June 1.