Dinosaur fossils a booming business on world's black market

An image from documents released from the U.S. Attorney's office, Monday, June 18, 2012 shows the fossil of a Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur at the center of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia.
AP Photo/U.S Attorney Office for the Southern District of New York

(CBS News) The public has long had a fascination with dinosaurs. But that intense interest has led to an illegal and lucrative market in smuggled dinosaur bones.

On television and in the movies, people can't get enough of the T-Rex. Its less well-known cousin, the tarbosaurus, is also formidable -- and very valuable. In May, a tarbosaurus skeleton, discovered in Mongolia's Gobi Desert was auctioned off for more than $1 million. But there's a problem.

Disputed Mongolian dinosaur judged a "Frankensaurus"

Robert Painter, the Mongolian government's attorney, explained, "In Mongolia, if you find a dinosaur fossil anywhere in the country, it belongs to the people of Mongolia. This skeleton is in the United States illegally."

The skeleton was smuggled, according to federal prosecutors, by Eric Prokopi, a self-described "commercial paleontologist." He is accused of trafficking in prehistoric fossils, such as a duck-billed dinosaur skeleton sold at another auction for $75,000.

In October, investigators seized 400 pounds of fossils from his home in Gainesville, Fla., and obtained pictures of Prokopi digging up and removing dinosaur bones in Mongolia.

Prokopi, 38, runs a business called Everything Earth, which boasts of selling dinosaurs "to anyone that wants one!"

Painter said, "In fact there's a global marketplace for the sale of these illicit fossils. So what you're talking about here is a trade that's millions and millions and millions of dollars each year."

Prokopi's lawyer told "CBS This Morning": "The government says dinosaur fossils were stolen, but we have a different view of how the law applies in this case."

It's a legal disagreement 70 million years in the making.

For Chip Reid's full "CTM" report and for John Miller's full analysis on this case, watch the video above.

CBS News senior correspondent John Miller, a former FBI assistant director, said on "CTM" that Prokopi's lawyer is referring to a disagreement over the application of a 1924 law.

"His lawyer...did a very in-depth request to have the case dismissed and his key point is that this is a 1924 law that says you cannot remove these things from Mongolia. But he said in 1992, after the fall of communism, they threw out the constitution, so his position is all those laws went out with it. That's A. B, he says, is 'My client doesn't know where these bones came they could have come from China. We have to rely on what the diggers told us.' If you go to the government side, they say we have pictures of him on the scene, and his own documentation says they are from Mongolia. On the Customs things, he said, 'This is a bunch of broken old bones and lizards I'm shipping from the Great Britain and it's worth $15,000.' There's a credibility issue that will be examined at trial."

As for the fossil buyers, Miller said, "Of course, we were hoping that the buyers would turn out to be the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan between arrests. But what we don't see is a Hollywood set or somebody famous. What we do see is wealthy people who want something really interesting for their friends to talk about put under their key light in their basement for their 70 dinner guests."