Recent Disputes And Controversies Involving Asian Antiquities And Cultural Property*


The looting of antiquities and other cultural artifacts is a vast problem in countries around the world, including Cambodia, China, and other Asian nations that face the large-scale destruction of important archaeological sites. Many of these countries are fighting fiercely to preserve their cultural heritage. While diplomatic attempts have been made on the international level to regulate the illicit trade in cultural property, the black market continues to thrive. With the ever-growing global appetite for Asian art and antiquities, it is not surprising that legal disputes involving the acquisition of these objects have become more frequent. This article explores some of the most significant cases and disputes in the United States involving Asian antiquities and cultural property in 2013.


One way that the U.S. government assists in the fight against the growing illegal art market is the use of civil forfeiture actions. Pursuant to federal forfeiture laws, the U.S. government can bring a civil action to have property that is the subject of criminal conduct forfeited to the U.S. In a recent forfeiture case that was closely watched, partly because of the unusual object in question, federal prosecutors in New York filed a lawsuit in June 2012 seeking to return to Mongolia a 70-million-year-old skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar that was allegedly discovered in 1946. In May 2012, the skeleton was supposed to sell at auction for $1.05 million, but before the auction took place, the government of Mongolia claimed that the bones were stolen.

The skeleton's importer, Eric Prokopi, a self-described "commercial paleontologist," intervened in the forfeiture action and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Mongolia has no law declaring bones to be state property, or that it chose not to enforce such a law. In October 2012, Prokopi was arrested and charged with conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possess stolen property, and make false statements. Prokopi was also charged with smuggling goods into the U.S. and the interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods. On November 14, 2012, the District Court for the Southern District of New York denied Prokopi's motion to dismiss, and on December 27, 2012, Prokopi withdrew his claim and pled guilty to smuggling the bones in a bid to reduce a potential 17-year prison sentence. The court entered a default judgment for the prosecution, and the property was forfeited to the U.S. government on February 14, 2013, clearing the way for the dinosaur to be returned to Mongolia. In May 2013, the skeleton, along with additional dinosaur fossils the U.S. government had recovered from a California auction house and a British fossil dealer, were formally repatriated to Mongolia.

In another forfeiture dispute, the U.S. filed a complaint in April 2012 seeking the forfeiture of a...

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