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Feds bust black market in dinosaur fossils

October 17, 2012: 1:43 PM ET

Make no bones about it, dinosaur remains are worth a pretty penny on the black market.

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged a Florida man with illegally importing dinosaur fossils from Mongolia and China, including a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton that sold for more than $1 million at auction.

The man, Eric Prokopi, was arrested by federal agents at his home in Gainesville, Fla., and will appear in court this afternoon, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, and Federal Immigration and Customs agents.

"Our investigation uncovered a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in a statement.

Prokopi, who buys and sells fossilized dinosaur skeletons through a business called Everything Earth, allegedly conspired to smuggle prehistoric dinosaur parts into the United States by misrepresenting information on customs forms from about April 2010 through August 2012.

The 38 year old "commercial paleontologist" faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, if convicted.

In addition to the Tyrannosaurus, Prokopi allegedly smuggled a Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton from Mongolia and sold it to the I.M. Chait gallery in California for $75,000 in May, according to the complaint.

A lawyer for Prokopi, Georges Lederman, declined to comment on the allegations.

Federal prosecutors have also filed civil charges against Prokopi, seeking the forfeiture of the Mongolian Tyrannosaurus skeleton. Under Mongolian law, dinosaur fossils are property of the Mongolian government and exporting them from the country is a criminal offense.

"We want to make this illegal business practice extinct in the U.S.," said special agent James Hayes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations. "This fossil is a symbol of the rich cultural heritage of the Mongolian people. HSI will preserve the fossil and return it to its rightful owner."

Prokopi sounded defiant in an email sent when Mongolian authorities made an attempt to reclaim the Tyrannosaurus skeleton before it was sold by Heritage Auctions in May.

"If [the Mongolian president] 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 allegedly wrote.

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