Sunday 20 May 2012

Heritage Auctions Prevented From Selling Mongolian Fossil

Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, Inc was planning to sell as  lot 49315  in a New York auction a rare fossil specimen which palaeontologists believe may have been illegally removed from Mongolia. The specimen is a near-complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur, 24-foot long and 8-feet tall. After an application by Houston attorney Robert Painter, on behalf of the President of Mongolia, on Saturday morning Dallas district court judge The Honorable Carlos Cortez granted a “Temporary Restraining Order” (TRO), preventing the sale. The press release notes:
It is of grave concern to officials in Mongolia that Heritage Auctions, Inc. has declined requests to disclose the owner and provenance, or to answer questions about whether the dinosaur was illegally smuggled out of Mongolia.  [...] .
As Brian Switek ('Stop the Tarbosaurus Auction!' wiredscience, May 19, 2012) notes, fossil theft is a major problem in many places, but dinosaur poaching is especially persistent and pernicious in China and Mongolia. Mongolia is particularly vulnerable to looters taking advantage of the country.  Because of the country’s expansive size, it is very difficult to secure all excavation sites, "prime specimens are regularly ripped from the rock to be sold to private individuals elsewhere around the world, all against the heritage laws meant to regulate the responsible collection and curation of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures".

The article sets out the reasons for believing the item is from Mongolia's Gobi Desert, and was illegally excavated, smuggled to England before being put on sale along with a set of several other Mongolian dinosaur specimens.

During the past few days, Mongolian officials and paleontologists have been rallying to stop the auction. An online petition to stop the auction was created. American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Mark Norell, who has frequently excavated fossils there and is an expert on Mongolia’s dinosaurs wrote a letter to Heritage Auctions affirming that the Mongolian dinosaurs slated for auction were almost certainly excavated illegally:
As someone who is intimately familiar with these faunas, these specimens were undoubtedly looted from Mongolia. There is no legal mechanism (nor has there been for over 50 years) to remove vertebrate fossil material from Mongolia. These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia. As a professional paleontologist, am appalled that these illegally collected specimens (with no associated documents regarding provenance) are being sold at auction. [You can see the entire letter at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.]

The response of Heritage Auctions as reported by Brian Switek is notable. Heritage Auctions clearly has not been swayed by the appeals of the Mongolian government and the scientific community:
The president of Heritage Auctions, Greg Rohan, wrote a snippy letter in response to the online petition trying to save the dinosaur for science. “You should all be aware that this auction has been publicicized [sic] broadly for 4 weeks,” Rohan wrote “and the Mongolian Governments request issued today less than 48 hours before the auction is unreasonable and inappropriate.” As if the timing of the protest has anything to do with whether the dinosaurs were obtained illegally or not. And, strangely, Rohan claims that the Tarbosaurus was discovered at a different time than what the auction’s official listing states. While the dinosaur’s description is clear that the tyrannosaur was excavated “within the past decade”, Rohan claimed that “Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that.” 
Eh? Has the President of "Heritage" Auctions got any idea of what is meant by the Natural and cultural Heritage? Probably not, I would guess. In the reptilian world view, it's just something to make money from.

Attorney Carl Soller of Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, P.C., who represents Heritage Auctions, in a statement to Dan Vergano’s Science Fair blog at USA Today says:
"(a)lthough we appreciate your concerns with respect to the referred to 'Tarbosaurus', it is our conclusion that no impropriety exists with regards to its sale at auction on May 20. [...] Our client has no reason to believe that any laws enforced by the United States have been violated and we are unaware that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia," Soller wrote. "In the event that you failed to note a known prohibition preventing the auction, please advise. Otherwise the sale will go forward."

Look at the point made by Heritage's lawyers, "laws enforced by the US", as we have seen in some recent antiques/antiquities cases, laws do exist in the US which allow the seizure of illegally appropriated or exported items when they are already in the US. The auctioneer's lawyers are merely hoping that in this case they are not going to be "enforced". He also says "we are unaware that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia". I bet they did not enquire too deeply into that issue, in the absence of an export licence. So, what will they do now they are aware of this? Apply for that export licence? Write to the Mongolian President explaining he's got it all wrong? I think Mr Switek's penultimate paragraph worth quoting in full here. Heritage Auctions also sells antiquities (lots of coins for example) and some of the author's conclusions about the company as a result of this controversy seem applicable to their part in the US no-questions-asked trade in antiquities: 
Whether or not the dinosaur was looted seems irrelevant to Heritage Auctions. They want to keep their centerpiece for tomorrow’s auction – a tyrannosaur they expect to go for about a million dollars. And the company seems unmoved by the implication that such sales only fuel the impression that dinosaurs can rake in massive amounts of cash – a perception that gives more impetus to poachers and thieves who trash field sites for specimens which wind up as status symbols for celebrities. The Tarbosaurus, Saichania, and other Mongolian dinosaur specimens should be pulled from auction. Rohan’s statement that it is “unreasonable and inappropriate” to protest the auction is a loathsome and limp response. The timing of the objection is irrelevant. These fossils were illegally collected, and auctioning them off only fuels additional criminal activity. To put the dinosaurs on the block tomorrow would be a completely reprehensible action by Heritage Auctions [...].
Well, fortunately the auction was stopped (temporarily) in the nick of time by legal action rather than having to rely on the auction house doing the right thing. Let us hope that the US will uphold the rule of law and if further investigation yields no evidence that proper procedure was followed in getting these specimens to New York, the object is seized and returned to Mongolia. And then let us have some naming and shaming of those involved in the smuggling and preparation for sale of this specimen.

See also Dan Vergano, 'Tyrannosaurus auction protested by Mongolia', ScienceFair blog, May 18, 2012

If you look through the items offered, it is clear that these are for the most part 'trophy' specimens. There are other things here that I suspect would be of "interest" to other parties if they had spotted them before the auction, whose responsibility should that be? No mention is made of export licences for any of the meteorites, for example, though it seems at least one of them offered (Gibeon) would need one to be legal. The whole issue of "NWA" meteorites is highly problematic, how did they leave their findspots? The mammoth specimens from Russia, also. Buyers should beware of Baltic amber with inclusions which exhibit cooling-stress fractures and many bubbles. A sad spectacle. 

Vignette:  Greg Rohan, President of Heritage Auction Galleries

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