WASHINGTON – On December 10, 2015 a microraptor fossil estimated to be approximately 120 million years old was returned to the government of China Thursday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale, China’s Deputy Director General of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage Gu Yucai and Department of State Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan participated in the repatriation ceremony. In addition to the microraptor fossil, ICE also returned jade disks, bronze trays and other items, dating back as far as 1600 BCE to the Chinese government.
The artifacts were recovered by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) offices in New York, Cleveland and Miami. The fossil was falsely manifested as a “craft rock” and later as a “fossil replica” to conceal the shipment’s true contents.
HSI Cleveland and HSI New York worked jointly to investigate Eric Prokopi, 38, of Florida, who later pleaded guilty to engaging in a scheme to illegally import dinosaur fossils. According to court documents and statements made in Manhattan federal court, Prokopi owned and ran a business out of his Florida home and is a self-described commercial paleontologist. Prokopi was fined, served time in jail and was subject to 15 months supervisory release.
As part of his plea agreement, Prokopi admitted to the forfeiture of a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, which was looted from Mongolia and sold at auction in Manhattan for over $1 million. The specimen was the subject of a separate pending civil forfeiture action. Prokopi also agreed to forfeit a second nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, a Saurolophus skeleton, and an Oviraptor skeleton, all of which he possessed and were recently recovered by the government. In addition, Prokopi will forfeit his interest in a third Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton believed to be located in Great Britain. All of the fossils originated in Mongolia. The skeleton of a Chinese flying dinosaur that Prokopi illegally imported has already been administratively forfeited.
“The repatriation of these items is a great success for the United States and for the Chinese government and its people,” said Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan. “Cultural heritage endures as a reminder of the contributions and historical experiences of humanity, and we must continue to work together on many fronts to safeguard it.”
Immediately following the repatriation ceremony, Dr. Eric Dorfman, Director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and President of ICOM NATHIST joined Mr. Zhang Zhijun, Deputy Chief of the Department of Stratigraphy and Paleontology for the Geological Museum of China, in signing an agreement formalizing a plan to lend the fossil to the Carnegie Museum for a future exhibition at a date to be determined.
Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 8,000 items to more than 30 countries.