Over the weekend, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered the return of a Tyrannosaurus bataar skull back to Mongolia after the fossil was smuggled illegally into the United States and sold at auction in 2007. While initial reports did not specify who exactly was in possession of the 67 million-year-old skull, it has since been revealed that actor Nicolas Cage purchased the fossil for $276,000 at a Beverly Hills auction house.
While the actor was absolved of any wrongdoing in the incident – Cage was unaware that the fossil was smuggled into America illegally – Reuters reports that he was ordered to forfeit the Tyrannosaurus bataar skull back to the Mongolian government, which Cage agreed to do last week. (Cage reportedly outbid Leonardo DiCaprio for the skull.)
The skull's recovery is part of a larger effort to return ancient artifacts and fossils to Mongolia; paleontologist Erik Prokopi was sentenced to three months in prison in December 2012 after pleading guilty of taking fossils – including Cage's Tyrannosaurus bataar skull – out of the Gobi Desert and selling them for profit. Following his conviction, Prokopi has assisted authorities in reacquiring nearly 20 fossils.
"Each of these fossils represents a culturally and scientifically important artifact looted from its rightful owner," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told The Associated Press, adding that Prokopi was a "one-man black market in prehistoric fossils." It's unclear whether Cage knew Prokopi, who managed to pass the 32-inch skull into the U.S. by labeling the cargo as "fossil stone pieces." Exporting dinosaur bones out of Mongolia has been outlawed since 1924.