DALLAS (CN) – Despite a lawsuit from the president of Mongolia, a Dallas-based auction house sold a largely intact fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar on Sunday for $1.1 million – but transfer of the bones will be put on hold during litigation.
Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia of Mongolia sued Heritage Auctions in Dallas County Court on Saturday.
Tsakhia said the fossil came from the Gobi Desert and that exporting dinosaur bones or fossils from his country is illegal. He sought to enjoin the sale and transfer of the skeleton until legal ownership and proper provenance is established in court.
Tyrannosaurus bataar means “alarming lizard.” It resembles the North American Tyrannosaurus beloved by children.
Tsakhia’s attorney Robert Painter, of Houston, flew to New York to attend the auction on Sunday and seek enforcement of a temporary restraining order signed by Dallas County Judge Carlos Cortez, Painter said in a written statement.
Painter said that when the skeleton came up for auction, the auctioneer stated, “The sale of this next lot will be contingent on a satisfactory resolution of a court proceeding dealing with this matter.”
Painter then stood up, said that Judge Cortez was on the phone with him and that going ahead with the auction, even contingent on the lawsuit, would violate the judge’s temporary restraining order.
Heritage Auctions president Greg Rohan then rushed toward him, refused to speak with the judge on the phone, asked Painter to leave the room and directed that the auction proceed, the attorney said in the statement.
“I am very surprised that Heritage Auctions, Inc. knowingly defied a valid court order, particularly with the judge on the phone, listening and ready to explain his order,” Painter said in the statement. “It makes me wonder if that Heritage Auctions, Inc. has a similar disregard for the property laws that protect antiquities, like the Tyrannosaurus fossil, that they attempt to auction.”
The president’s complaint states that the auction of the skeleton provoked “understandable outrage” from the Mongolian people, and from the museum and paleontology community.
Bolortsetseg Minkin, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, wrote to Heritage that “Based on our experience in the studying [and] collecting of Mongolian dinosaurs, and on the information provided by your company with other specimens to be auctioned this Sunday, we strongly suspect that the Tyrannosaurus specimen, as well as several others you intend to auction, came from Mongolia. Mongolian law prohibits the export of fossil specimens,” according to the complaint.
Mongolia’s Gobi Desert is one of the world’s richest repositories of dinosaur bones.
In addition to the restraining order, the Mongolian government seeks a declaration that the people of Mongolia are the rightful owners of the skeleton.