Prehistoric Tyranny? Or Justice?

The federal government is demanding that a fully assembled Tyrannosaur skeleton be returned to Mongolia, its place of origin. The fossil in question was imported (smuggled?) into the US in 2010. It was then prepared, articulated, and sold at auction for over one million dollars.

The Mongolian government is demanding the skeleton be returned, and they have a point. The skeleton was excavated and removed without a permit. Furthermore, Mongolian law does not allow the export of fossils without special dispensation. Thus, they would seem to have an ironclad case, and the federal government clearly agrees.

Closed case?

Not quite. The preparer of the fossil purchased it in good faith. Ordinarily, when one buys stolen goods, it is irrelevant if you didn't know they were hot: you still have to give them back. However, a Tyrannosaur isn't like a cell phone. The skeleton arrived as a jumble of bones, embedded in rock. It had to be painstakingly cleaned and mounted, at great expense. The purchaser also has a point: even if the fossil had been left in Mongolia, the Mongolian government would have had to go through considerable expense and effort to extract and prepare it for display. With this ruling, they effectively get the prepared fossil for free.

Perhaps the best solution is for the Mongolian government to reimburse the expense involved in preparing the skeleton. That way, the preparer gets his money back. In exchange, Mongolia gets a fully prepared skeleton at a fraction of the cost of extracting their own.

What do you think? This is certainly a sticky legal issue, about a highly specific subject. As I'm not a lawyer, my expertise is limited.

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