An almost completely intact dinosaur skeleton of a close relative to the T-Rex was auctioned off in New York Sunday for $1.05 million, but a phone call from Mongolia's president during the bidding nearly put a stop to the sale.
Citing increased looting of dinosaur fossils from his country, which in Mongolia has been a criminal offense for 50 years, a lawyer for Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia persuaded a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to try to halt the sale of the tarbosaurus, New Scientist reported.
But Heritage Auction House went through with the sale anyway. Heritage said the purchase was contingent upon the legal matters being sorted out and did not release the identity of the phone buyer.
In an open letter to paleontologists, Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York confirmed the Mongolian government's concerns regarding the fossil and another specimen that also hit auction block the same day.
"(The Fossils) clearly were excavated in Mongolia as this is the only locality in the world where these dinosaurs are known," Norell wrote.
Heritage Auction House said the fossil was from Central Asia.
"We have legal assurances from our reputable consignors that the specimen was obtained legally," Dallas-based Heritage Auction House President Greg Rohan told New Scientist. "As far as we know, the Mongolian government has not produced any evidence that the piece originated in its territory."
Robert Painter, the lawyer representing Mongolia's president, said that he planned to ask the judge for a shortened discovery period which unravel the mystery in about a week.
“I feel comfortable that the Tyrannosaurus skeleton is safe," Painter told The New York Observer. "Once we get the ownership identified, if we’re correct and this is the property of the Mongolian nation, this will not go back to the consignor—it will be returned to the Mongolian people. That’s our goal."
Texas state District Judge Carlos R. Cortez hasn't given a ruling on the dispute. He told the auction house not to transfer the purchase just yet.
"The skeleton is inherently unique and irreplaceable," Cortez told CBS. "If it is sold to a bona fide purchaser, it will likely be unable to be recovered" by the Mongolian government."