NEW YORK – Nicolas Cage has agreed to give back a national treasure from Mongolia.
A publicist for the star of the “National Treasure” adventure films confirmed Tuesday that Cage was the unwitting buyer of a dinosaur skull that federal prosecutors in New York say was stolen. Prosecutors announced last week that they were seeking court approval to take custody of the 32-inch fossil so it could be returned to the Asian nation, but they did not name the buyer.
Cage bought the skull at auction from Los Angeles-based I.M. Chait gallery and auction house and received a certificate of authenticity, publicist Alex Schack said in an email.
After being notified last year that authorities suspected the item was stolen, the actor “fully cooperated with the investigation, including arranging an inspection of the fossil by agents,” and later agreed to forfeit it, Schack said.
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According to court papers, investigators believe the skull was looted from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and shipped through Japan to Gainesville, Florida, in June 2006 bearing a false customs label.
The piece was auctioned in Manhattan on March 25, 2007, selling for $230,000 plus a commission that raised the total paid by the then-anonymous buyer to $276,000, the papers said. It had been marketed as an “extremely rare” Tyrannosaurus skull from the late Cretaceous period, which ended about 65 million years ago.
“The battery of huge, knife-like, serrated teeth are quite impressive and are in excellent condition,” court papers quoted the auction catalog as saying of a skull that was 65 percent complete. “Overall, this remarkable specimen is scientifically accurate and important.”
It was unclear whether the skull has ties to Eric Prokopi, a former fossils dealer who pleaded guilty to charges he smuggled multiple shipments of dinosaur bones between 2010 and 2012 that had been stolen from the Gobi Desert. Court papers say Prokopi had sold stolen fossils to I.M. Chait, which has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Since 2012, prosecutors have used civil and criminal actions to return to Mongolia of several dinosaur fossils that include multiple Tyrannosaurus and other skeletons, dinosaur eggs and small prehistoric lizards and turtles.