Return of looted Mongolian dinosaur prompts questions on stolen antiquities and terrorist financing

Mark V Vlasic, IBA Fellow

About the IBA Fellowship for Innovation

Mark Vlasic at the  Ulaanbaatar museum

Over the Christmas holiday, the people of Mongolia got just what they wanted: their dinosaur back. In a case of life imitating art, actor Nicolas Cage did the right thing, and returned the skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar (cousin to the famous Tyrannosaurus rex) to Mongolia, where it had been illegally looted, probably from the Gobi Desert.

In a ‘good news’ story, just in time for the holidays, Oscar-winning actor Cage – known to many for his starring role in the Hollywood antiquities-related hit National Treasure – agreed to return the Tyrannosaurus bataar skull, back to where the dinosaur once lived, about 70 million years ago. Cage reportedly purchased the skull at a New York auction, from the Beverly Hills-based gallery, I M Chait, for over $250,000. Probably unknown to the Hollywood actor, I M Chait had a history of selling smuggled dinosaur fossils. As an investigation later revealed, the gallery maintained relations with a now-convicted criminal, Florida based paleontologist, Eric Prokopi.

In an earlier case, Prokopi was arrested in 2012, for smuggling illegal goods and stolen property. The paleontologist was described by US Attorney Preet Bharara, the prosecutor involved in the case, as a ‘one-man black market in prehistoric fossils'. It is not certain whether the skull in question was procured by Prokopi, but the skull did originate for sale in Florida, Prokopi’s home-state.

Since at least 2012, the US Department of Justice, the US Department of Homeland Security and US attorneys have been working in conjunction to repatriate artefacts and skeletons stolen from Mongolia, which violates both US law and Mongolian law. In 2013, the US government returned a fully assembled Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton – ‘owned’ and looted by Prokopi - to its rightful home in Mongolia, after a lengthy investigation.

With respect to this year’s holiday return, Cage was reportedly contacted by the Department of Homeland Security in 2014, a year after the return of Prokopi’s dinosaur skeleton. After a thorough study determined that the skull originated in Mongolia, and was illegally procured, Cage agreed to relinquish the skull to US authorities. Cage is believed to be unaware of the black market origins of the skull - he was reportedly provided with a certificate of authentication by I M Chait - and was not charged with any crime.

“ UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has declared the ‘deliberate destruction of cultural heritage’ in Syria and Iraq a ‘war crime’

It is rare for stones and bones to make headlines in America – and it is worth noting that it took a Hollywood actor, known for his role as an ancient treasure hunter, to remind us of the real-world implications of global looted cultural heritage. When looted, cultural heritage – including such skeletons and fossil specimens – lose much of their scientific and historical value, as they are often ripped from the earth without the appropriate data and context. Such specimens also provide vast cultural value, not only by creating national pride, but also in this case through a dino-tourism industry, which Mongolia is starting to create. Based on information provided to US government officials by Prokopi after his arrest, authorities have repatriated Mongolian fossils from multiple jurisdictions, which now fill Ulaanbaatar’s newest museum.

Similar to other criminal investigations, the role of an ‘insider witness’ is often critical to uncovering evidence of additional crimes. And in this case, US authorities have indicated that much of their subsequent success in such looted fossil investigations - including the skull seized from Cage - is due to information provided by Prokopi, an antiquities market insider. Having faced a possible 17-year prison sentence, it seems Prokopi turned into a cooperating witness, and has reportedly advised the US authorities of the illicit industry’s processes and middle men – giving the government an understanding of the ‘contours of the black market and what it is'.

Blood antiquities

The black market in looted antiquities – from dinosaur fossils to ancient artifacts from the ‘cradle of civilisation’ in conflict zones like Syria, Iraq and Libya (so-called ‘blood antiquities’) – is a large one. According to the American Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), antiquities crime is one of the top five global crimes – and is estimated by some to run into the billions of dollars. Tragically, this global illicit market for antiquities has been implicated in not just funding criminal activity, but also terrorism.

Far from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, in the sands of Syria and Iraq, ISIS is turning what was once opportunistic looting in the region, into a plunder of antiquities at an industrial scale. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal investigative report, citing Western intelligence sources, noted that looting (broadly) represents ISIS's second largest source of financing (after oil).

According to reports from the field, ISIS seems to be taking on a two-pronged approach: destroy large-scale antiquities in Syria and Iraq, for propaganda value and, at the same time, use such destruction as a virtual smoke screen, allowing the criminal organisation to loot blood antiquities, for their financial gain on the international black market.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has declared the ‘deliberate destruction of cultural heritage’ in Syria and Iraq a ‘war crime’ – and has raised the alarm of possible ‘cultural cleansing’ in the region. So serious is the issue, the UN Security Council issued a resolution noting that ISIS is engaging in the ‘looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items from [...] Iraq and Syria, which is being used to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks’.

This resolution should be sobering news to anyone in the business of buying, selling, displaying, insuring, storing or transporting antiquities. There may have been a time where buying looted antiquities could be brushed-off by some as a ‘victimless’ crime. Such individuals may have rationalised the fact that at least such antiquities could find a ‘proper’ home, in a well-preserved private collection or museum, where such cultural heritage could be better appreciated. And every middle-man in the transaction could simply deflect any possible wrongdoing as beyond the scope of his or her remit.

But when there are reports that groups such as ISIS are profiting from such looting, and ISIS-inspired fighters are training their weapons on civilians in the same Western countries that may provide a marketplace for such blood antiquities – we must confront the truth of the matter: providing any marketplace, for any looted antiquity, erodes the honest marketplace that may provide the most effective tool against this illicit trade.   

Like those involved in disrupting the illicit trade in Mongolian dinosaurs, the front-line of any real solution must include those involved in the marketplace. Law enforcement plays a critical role in helping keep people ‘honest’ – by seeking criminal prosecutions, shame and real prison time for wrongdoers – but we must accept that, in many ways, those involved in the antiquities trade ‘value chain’ are likely the best placed to ensure that blood antiquities never enter the marketplace in the first place.

Doing so may yet preserve those antiquities still buried in the sands of the world, and may yet deprive some measure of funding, that could be used to take another innocent human life.


Mark V Vlasic is a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University. He served on Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. He leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy group and serves as an adviser to the Director-General of UNESCO. He is one of three fellows under the IBA’s newly inaugurated Fellowship for Innovation programme