Lawsuit of the Day

Cretaceous Law: It Belongs In A Museum

Tyrannosaurus bataar

If you are like me, “archaeologist” sounded like the coolest job in the world when you were a kid. You wanted to be Indiana Jones. You wanted to be Doctor Alan Grant.

At least until you figured out that being an archaeologist means sitting in a desert with a toothbrush wiping sand off of an ancient pile of poop.

But if you bury it in the sand, maybe in 1,000 years even your law degree might be worth something. Lawyers can have a great role to play in which artifacts end up in a museum for the world to see, and which end up in the private collection of some obscenely wealthy person.

And lawyers have a lot to say about which country the treasures of history end up in.

This weekend, a lawyer was on his own crusade to stop the sale of Tyrannosaur bones at auction. That’s right, we’ve got a Dinosuit on our hands. And just to add that international flair, the lawyer was representing the president of Mongolia….

The New York Observer has a wonderful story about the auction of a high-quality Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton by Heritage Auctions:

Before bidding on the skeleton began, the auctioneer announced that the sale would be “contingent upon a court proceeding dealing with this matter.” Almost immediately, Robert Painter, a lawyer representing Elbegdorj Tsakhia, the president of Mongolia, stood up with a cell phone held to his ear and yelled, “I’m sorry, I need to interrupt this auction. I have a judge on the phone.”

A loud whistle rang out, and Heritage Auctions president Greg Rohan, along with a group of security guards, gathered around Mr. Painter. They urged him to a corner of the room, past a massive cast of a sabre-tooth tiger and a glass case full of meteorite chunks.

See, this is why all paleo-attorneys need to carry a whip or something.

Despite these protests, Heritage went on with the auction, and the bones were bought by an unidentified phone buyer for just over a million dollars. You’d really think that a judge on the phone would be able to issue an injunction.

Unsurprisingly, proceeding with the auction led to a lawsuit and a protest:

Mr. Painter also got a temporary restraining order signed by district court judge Carlos Cortez, who he had on the phone during the auction, which was intended to prevent the sale and transfer of possession of the skeleton…

After being escorted from the building, Mr. Painter stood with a small gathering of protestors — one of them wearing a traditional Mongolian hat and jacket — who were distributing fliers on the sidewalk. They held a sign that read, rather dispassionately, “It’s a national treasure of Mongolia. Return our stolen treasure.”

The dinosaur in question roamed in what is now Mongolia, and it seems most scientists agree that the bones were likely found in Mongolia. But Heritage Auctions claims that the seller has established provenance over the bones and that the skeleton was acquired legally.

It’s like Heritage is trying to erect a legal wall to keep the Mongolian claimants out.

There is always a great debate about who owns what when it comes to historical and natural artifacts. Honestly, it might be more exciting to be a lawyer fighting these ownership battles than to be the grad student digging these bones out of the Gobi desert in the first place.

T-Rex Wreck: Mongolian Representative Disrupts Skeleton Auction [New York Observer]

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