In his latest movie, Nicolas Cage has to return a dinosaur skull worth more than a quarter of a million dollars to Mongolian officials, after it was smuggled into the United States by a paleontologist described as "one-man black market in prehistoric fossils." Wait, no, hang on. That's not a movie — that's real life.
The skull in question comes from a Tyrannosaurus bataar (also known as Tarbosaurus bataar) — a smaller version of the better-known T. rex — and was bought by the actor in 2007 from a Beverly Hills gallery. Cage paid $276,000 for the prehistoric curio, outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio in the process, but voluntarily turned it over to US authorities when the Department of Homeland Security told him that it might have been stolen. A civil forfeiture complaint filed by attorney Preet Bharara has now been filed to take the skull back to its home country.
Mongolia criminalized the removal of dinosaur fossils in 1924
It's not entirely clear how the head made it out of Mongolia, but Cage's skull may have been illegally smuggled out of the country by Erick Prokopi, a dealer jailed in 2014 for illegally exporting the remains of several dinosaurs to the United States. Prokopi sold fossils to the same I.M. Chait gallery that Cage bought his skull from, but neither the gallery nor the actor have been accused of any wrongdoing in the matter. Prokopi, for his part, chalked his actions up to a love of fossils, and helped recover several skeletons that had been illegally removed from the Asian country as part of his sentencing.
For Mongolia, which criminalized the removal of fossils in 1924, it's a chance to recover a precious piece of prehistory. For Cage, he might have lost an impressive conversation piece, but he might well be pleased that the news of his stolen skull has just added yet another layer of mystique to one of Hollywood's strangest stars.