A microraptor fossil estimated to be approximately 120 million years old was returned to the government of China Thursday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale, China’s Deputy Director General of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage Gu Yucai and Department of State Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan participated in the repatriation ceremony. In addition to the microraptor fossil, ICE also returned jade disks, bronze trays and other items, dating back as far as 1600 BCE to the Chinese government.
The artifacts were recovered by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) offices in New York, Cleveland and Miami. The fossil was falsely manifested as a “craft rock” and later as a “fossil replica” to conceal the shipment’s true contents.
“In returning these items today, ICE rights a great wrong for the people of China,” said Ragsdale. “Fossils and treasures like these will always be targeted by bad actors, but we continue to investigate these crimes and repatriate them to their rightful owners.”
HSI Cleveland and HSI New York worked jointly to investigate Eric Prokopi, of Florida, who later pleaded guilty to engaging in a scheme to illegally import dinosaur fossils. According to court documents and statements made in Manhattan federal court, Prokopi owned and ran a business out of his Florida home and is a self-described commercial paleontologist. Prokopi was fined, served time in jail and was subject to 15 months supervisory release.
“The U.S. government has demonstrated a responsible attitude for implementing international treaties and honoring bilateral commitments,” said Gu. “The return of the 22 missing Chinese artifacts is the most convincing example in this regard.”
The other repatriated items were seized in connection with an HSI Miami investigation into an art dealer by the name of Francois B. Lorin. According to court documents, invoices accompanying the artifacts indicated the entire contents originated in Florida and were being returned to the United States after having been shipped to Hong Kong for a trade show.
“The repatriation of these items is a great success for the United States and for the Chinese government and its people,” said Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan. “Cultural heritage endures as a reminder of the contributions and historical experiences of humanity, and we must continue to work together on many fronts to safeguard it.”
After the items were interdicted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors, Lorin and others created false documents to justify provenance for certain items in the shipment that were prohibited from entering the United States without such provenance. Lorin was sentenced to three years of probation, issued a $50,000 fine and required to forfeit the artifacts.
In accordance with a bilateral agreement between the United States and the People’s Republic of China signed in 2009, both countries work together closely to prevent the illicit trafficking of archaeological objects.
Immediately following the repatriation ceremony, Dr. Eric Dorfman, Director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Mr. Zhang Zhijun, Deputy Chief of the Department of Stratigraphy and Paleontology for the Geological Museum of China, signed an agreement formalizing a plan to lend the fossil to the Carnegie Museum for a future exhibition at a date to be determined.
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, specializing in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen. HSI’s International Operations, through its 62 attaché offices in 46 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations.