Little did Houston attorney Robert Painter know that his decade-old friendship with the president of Mongolia would lead to unraveling an archaeological mystery worthy of Indiana Jones.
In a story that reads like a Hollywood script, Painter played a leading role – including flying to Dallas and New York over a single weekend - to thwart the sale of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton to a private buyer.
Although the rare skeleton was initially sold in May at an auction in New York, the transaction hinged upon resolution of litigation and ultimately was canceled after the U.S. government in June seized the bones.
After further investigation, Florida resident Eric Prokopi, the consignor who had placed the skeleton for auction, pleaded guilty Dec. 27 in federal court in New York to two counts of smuggling and one count of conspiracy.
The remarkably intact set of bones looks like a smaller version of its Tyrannosaurus rex cousin, measuring about 30 feet long and 10 feet high, Painter said.
It was set to be auctioned May 20 in New York through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.
Two evenings earlier, Painter received an urgent email from an adviser to Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Could anything, she asked, be done legally to stop an auction in less than 48 hours in New York.
Painter flew into action. He got involved in the case through his 10-year friendship with Elbegdorj, whom he met at a conference in New Orleans, while Elbegdorj was studying at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The two quickly hit it off and began collaborating on projects.
“We would have never thought of dinosaurs,” Painter said, although in the past year he has learned that many of the world’s dinosaur fossils are found in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
“So what did you do this week?”
“Oh, not much, really. I teamed up with the President of Mongolia to save a T-Rex skeleton from being illegally auctioned. How about you?”
“Well, I was going to say I wrote a memo about the need to clean out the office coffee pot when it’s empty, but I think I’ll just sit here quietly instead.”