Just like his character in the National Treasure movies, actor Nicolas Cage has put himself on something of an obsessive quest to collect rare items. Cage has purportedly blown millions on a jet, various exotic animals, a pyramid tombstone, and other oddities. But now the compulsive star is doing the right thing and returning an ancient item that had been stolen from its rightful resting place — a 70 million-year-old tyrannosaur.
Cage bought the fossil, the skull of a Tarbosaurus bataar, at a 2007 I.M. Chait auction in New York City for $276,000. He wanted it so badly that apparently he outbid The Great Gatsby himself, Leonardo DiCaprio, to purchase the dinosaur from a private seller. At the time, paleontologists could do little more than hang their heads in sorrow at such sales. There was every reason to believe that specimens of Tarbosaurus and other frequent auction block fossils from Mongolia, Argentina, and China had been illegally smuggled out of those countries, which have strict heritage laws protecting fossil finds, but little was being done to stop the trade.
That changed in 2012. In May of that year, fossil thief Eric Prokopi sold a composite skeleton of Tarbosaurus to an unnamed buyer at a Heritage Auctions event in New York City for approximately one million dollars. But government agents quickly seized the fossil and uncovered evidence that Prokopi had knowingly smuggled the dinosaur into the United States, along with several other illegal fossils kept in his Florida workshop. This was the first time a dinosaur had been rescued from auction so swiftly and decisively.
Then Prokopi started talking. After pleading guilty to the charges, he began to supply authorities with tips about other fossils kept secret in the shady world of black market dinosaurs. As a result, the New Yorker reported, at least 18 dinosaurs have since gone back to Mongolia. And with or without Prokopi’s information, the case focused attention on just how many bones have been robbed from Mongolia and other countries. Early last year, for example, Wyoming-based fossil dealer Rick Rolater was nailed for trying to sell another stolen Tarbosaurus skull.
Paleontologists had been hoping for authorities to do something about these illicit sales. Not only because dinosaurs were being stolen, but they were ending up as useless curios for the rich. Privately-held dinosaurs are out of bounds to scientists because they may not be kept in stable conditions and they can be sold off at any time, meaning that researchers can’t replicate the results of previous studies. Significant fossils belong in the public trust, not a millionaire’s foyer, and paleontologists have greeted this crackdown on dinosaur smugglers with enthusiasm.
Contacting Cage about the fossil gathering dust in his collection was the next logical step for the attorneys on the trail of stolen dinosaurs. There was no way that the dinosaur was brought to the U.S. legally. Mongolia has carefully monitored and regulated who’s allowed to excavate fossils, requiring that those finds have a permanent home within the country, for over 50 years. Being that Tarbosaurus was only named in 1955 and all the beautiful skulls and skeletons of the dinosaur have only come to light in the past few decades, it was certain that Cage unknowingly bought a hot dinosaur.
Whatever you think of Cage’s acting career, it’s to his credit that he immediately agreed to return the skull to Mongolia when experts determined that the “certificate of authenticity” the auction house provided with the fossil wasn’t worth even a pile of steaming dino droppings. And while it’s frustrating that there are still many other smuggled fossils being sold in the backrooms of gem shows and popping up at auction houses, the return of another Tarbosaurus is a victory for science and fossil fans alike. Dinosaurs are as much a part of a country’s heritage as archaeological artifacts or historic monuments. The least we can do is send them home. Thanks Nic.