By LARRY NEUMEISTER, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — A Florida dealer of fossils who acquired the remains of a dinosaur that the government plans to seize says he is "not some international bone smuggler" and that he risked his finances and reputation to put together the skeleton to promote a love of science in others.
Eric Prokopi, 37, struck back Thursday at the U.S. government's account of the Tyrannosaurus bataar fossil it seeks to hand over to Mongolia.
"I'm just a guy in Gainesville, Florida trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler," he said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press.
He said transforming chunks of rocks and broken bones "into an impressive skeleton took thousands of hours and every penny my wife and I had, but it was fascinating.
"We were thrilled and couldn't wait to share him with the world, and hoped it would inspire others to see the magic of paleontology and develop a love of science and appreciation of nature," Prokopi said.
Prokopi contested government claims in papers it filed in federal court in Manhattan this week that the skeleton was brought from Great Britain to Gainesville in March 2010 with erroneous claims that it had originated in Great Britain and was worth only $15,000. It was sold at auction last month for more than $1 million, though the sale is contingent upon the outcome of litigation.
A judge earlier this week said the government could seize the 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long skeleton from a Queens art storage facility because it appears the government will succeed in its claims. The skeleton was scheduled to be picked up Friday. Prokopi accused the government of caving to the will of Mongolia, saying he hoped "the American legal system will uphold the American laws and not sacrifice my rights and freedoms to please a foreign government out for a political trophy."
The commercial paleontologist said that the U.S. government wrongly claimed he misrepresented what was being imported and its value.
"I can wholeheartedly say the import documents are not fraudulent, a truth I am confident will be brought to light in the coming weeks," he said. "The value was declared much lower than the auction value because, quite simply, it was loose, mostly broken bones and rocks with embedded bones. It was not what you see today, a virtually complete, mounted skeleton."
Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for government lawyers, declined to comment Thursday.
Prokopi said and his wife hoped the skeleton would be bought by a museum or collector who would put it in a public forum, but the controversy that erupted caused museums to back out of the sale.
Prokopi also challenged assertions by experts that the skeleton had to originate in Mongolia, saying it was true that they are mainly known to come from the Gobi desert of Mongolia, "but they've also been found elsewhere, and it's certainly possible a new locality with complete specimens was discovered in another country."
He said they were "stunned by some of the public's reaction to the sale because commercial paleontology and private collectors are a vital part of bringing some of nature's most precious treasures to museum's worldwide."
Prokopi also challenged claims by some experts that the skeleton was collected poorly.
"I believe this specimen was expertly excavated, and the only damage that was done was caused by the elements," he said. "The claws and some teeth had weathered away and some teeth had slipped out before burial. I believe this specimen was expertly excavated, and the only damage that was done was caused by the elements."
He said claims by experts that it had been unearthed in the last 17 years could not be trusted.
"Other than the diggers, there is no way for anyone to know for certain when or where the specimen was collected," Prokopi said.
He defended commercial paleontology, saying the business was "full of intelligent, passionate people who love paleontology, not bone smugglers just looking to steal from important scientific research."
He said he was "headed toward total financial ruin" because the lost sale of the dinosaur had "irreparably devastated my family financially, it has cost several people their jobs, taken an emotional toll on my life and two young children and damaged my reputation as a commercial paleontologist."
Prokopi added: "If it weren't for people like me, some of these bones would just turn to dust and none of us would ever get to see or study them."
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