When actor Nicolas Cage bought a 70 million year old Tyrannosaurus bataar skull at auction for $276,000 in 2007, he had no way of knowing that it had actually been smuggled illegally into the United States. Cage purchased the fossil anonymously from the I.M. Chait gallery in Beverly Hills, but in July, 2014 he learned the skull was the subject of a homeland security investigation when law enforcement contacted his agent about the case.
It turns out the illegal trade in dinosaur bones is a huge problem for the government of Mongolia. The Tyrannosaurus bataar is only found in the Gobi Desert, and though the export of dinosaur fossils has been criminalized in the country since 1924, corrupt paleontologists looking to make serious money have been selling them on the black market for years. One smuggler, Eric Prokopi, was arrested in 2012 for stealing an entire Tyrannosaurus skeleton and sentenced to three months in prison. He originally faced up to 17 years — the lenient sentence is due to the fact that, as part of his guilty plea, he helped prosecutors recover more than a dozen other stolen fossils.
While it’s not clear if Prokopi is linked to the stolen skull that turned up at I.M. Chait, the scientific community has long condemned the practice of selling these fossils at private auction. Kevin Padian, a paleontologist from the University of California, told the New York Times in 2007 that in the rush to make easy money, private collectors often destroy the digging sites where fossils are found, making it impossible for researchers to learn more about how the animals lived and died. “We’re losing science, we’re losing education, we’re losing valuable specimens,” he said.
To his credit, it sounds like Cage is fully cooperating with the authorities and is in the process of returning the skull to its home in Mongolia. What’s less clear is the position of the gallery that originally sold him the fossil. This isn’t the first time they’ve purchased and sold illegally smuggled bones. While they have not been formally accused of wrongdoing, they haven’t been willing to speak to the press about the issue either.