By Barbara Goldberg
(Reuters) - A Florida man described as "a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils" was arrested on Wednesday on charges of smuggling dinosaur skeletons from Mongolia, authorities said.
The arrest of Eric Prokopi, 38, of Gainesville, Florida, comes amid an international custody battle over a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton seized by the U.S. government shortly after it was auctioned in Manhattan in May for $1.05 million.
"Our recent seizure of the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from Eric Prokopi was merely the tip of the iceberg," Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
"Our investigation uncovered a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils," he said.
The dinosaur seizure and subsequent charges against Prokopi were sparked by Mongolia's claim that the 70-million-year-old skeleton was stolen from the Gobi Desert and should be returned. Mongolian law prohibits the removal of dinosaur remains for private gain.
Prokopi, a commercial paleontologist who sells coral, fossils and other natural treasures through his home-based business at www.everything-earth.com, is accused of smuggling dinosaur bones out of Mongolia and China from 2007 and selling them to auction houses and individuals for enormous profit.
The charges against him are punishable by up to 35 years in prison.
According to the criminal complaint, the evidence against Prokopi includes a photograph taken by a Mongolian citizen that shows Prokopi "physically taking bones out of the ground" at an excavation site in Mongolia.
In addition to the bataar skeleton, the complain accuses Prokopi of smuggling other prehistoric bones, including:
- A Saurolophus angustirostris, a duckbilled herbivore also known as a hadrosaur that lived about 68 million years ago in what is today Mongolia. The fossil was sold for about $75,000 in May 2012 to a California gallery, which described it on its website as a "superb crested hadrosaur skeleton... nearly 40 feet long, making it as large as a modern bus."
- A Microraptor, a small flying dinosaur that cruised the skies about 65 million years ago over what today is China. The skeleton was fraudulently described on shipping documents as a "sample of craft rock" valued at $100 but the sender in a subsequent email warned Prokopi, "Selling fossils like this is not allowed in China," the criminal complaint said.
- A Gallimimus and an Oviraptor - smaller dinosaurs that lived about 65 million years ago. According to the criminal complaint, in an email to a trader in 2010, Prokopi said the Gallimimus was found near the Bugin Tsav region of Mongolia.
The complaint said Prokopi often undervalued the contents of shipments in shipping documents and mislabeled them as "fossil specimens" from Japan.
According to the complaint, Prokopi told the auction house that handled the sale of the bataar - a smaller Asian cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex - that efforts by Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj to prevent the sale would simply make stopping the trade in fossils even more difficult.
"If he only wants to take the skeleton and try to put an end to the black market, he will have a fight and will only drive the black market deeper underground," Prokopi wrote in an email quoted in the criminal complaint.
Robert Painter, a Houston-based lawyer representing the Mongolian government, said that after Prokopi's arrest, Elbegdorj had commended U.S. authorities for their efforts to stop the theft of cultural treasures.
"The two governments' continued cooperation in investigating this important matter will have a chilling effect on the global market for illegally obtained fossils," he said.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and David Brunnstrom)