By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - Dallas-based Heritage Auctions on Tuesday agreed to help the Mongolian government investigate the ownership of a rare Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur skeleton that Mongolian officials say may have been smuggled from that country before it was auctioned in New York earlier this month.
The nearly intact skeleton - a smaller Asian cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex - was sold by Heritage Auctions for $1.05 million on May 20. The buyer has not been identified.
A state district judge in Dallas has granted the Mongolian government a temporary restraining order to prevent the transfer of ownership until it is determined whether it was illegally obtained from Mongolia.
"Heritage will enthusiastically strive to arrive at a mutually agreeable outcome, once the President of Mongolia has had a reasonable opportunity to investigate the circumstances," Jim Halperin, co-chairman of Heritage Auctions, which conducted the sale, told Reuters in a statement on Tuesday.
A Houston attorney for the Mongolian government attempted to block the sale but was rebuffed by auction officials, who said a restraining order from a Texas court was not enforceable in New York.
"I commend Heritage Auctions and its consignor for assisting with my investigation into the origin and legal ownership of this Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton," Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia said on Tuesday in a statement.
The Mongolian government will send a delegation of Mongolian and non-Mongolian experts to New York City in June to inspect the skeleton, Tsakhia said.
This Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is 8 feet tall and 24 feet long, and was discovered in the Gobi Desert, according to Heritage Auctions. This species roamed what is now Central Asia during the Cretaceous period.
"This beautiful Tyrannosaurus skeleton is one of the most complete, most spectacular specimens that we've ever seen," David Herskowitz, director of natural history for the auction house, said in a statement.
The Gobi Desert stretches across portions of northern China and southern Mongolia. Heritage Auctions officials said it has not been determined in which country the skeleton was discovered.
"Since 90 percent of the Gobi Desert is in Mongolia, it was likely found there," said Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "Either way, Mongolia and China have the same laws regarding the sovereign ownership of dinosaur skeletons and other artifacts."
Both countries have prohibited the export of these artifacts since 1949, said Norell, who has worked extensively in Mongolia. "These fossils likely were illegally collected," he said.
Heritage officials said the skeleton has been placed in a crates in a secure location in New York City and will not be moved without court permission.
(Editing By Corrie MacLaggan, Greg McCune and Sandra Maler)