Moroccan authorities are investigating the case of a dinosaur's tail that was sold, by Mexican auction house Morton, to an anonymous buyer for around $97,000 ($1.8 million Mexican pesos).
The case got the attention of Moroccan media and raised concerns among its authorities. Today, the Culture Ministry announced the launch of an investigation to determine the origin of the disputed fossil, hinting it could be from Azilal, a place well known for it fossil abundance.
The fossil was sold among other pieces, including paintings and antiques such as a medal from Mexican emperor Maximiliano. A portion of the earnings of the sale will reportedly be donated to Fundacion Bancomer for the reconstruction of schools in areas affected by the September 19 earthquake, which shook most of central and southern Mexico last year.
Cultural Heritage Director, Abdellah Alaoui, has stated that Moroccan authorities are determined to enforce the international conventions regarding illegal trafficking of cultural assets and heritage looting.
Approximately $21,500 ($400,000 Mexican pesos) from the fossil's sale will be donated.
The four meters long tail fragment weights 180 kgs and belongs to a long-neck Jurassic dinosaur called “Atlasaurus”. According to Fernanda Becerril, an appraiser for Morton's antique department, the name makes reference to the Greek mythology giant condemned to hold the sky on his shoulders. But, Atlasaurus also bears a similar name to the Atlas mountain range, where it was first discovered, in the Azilal region in Morocco.
Becerril said the fossil has 70% of its original bones and that it took Moroccan paleontologists between 200 and 300 hours of work to clean. After which it was sent to a laboratory, in Utah in the United States, for assembling.
Morocco is widely known for its fossil and minerals abundance, and part of it was covered by the sea in the Paleozoic era. The Earth Sciences Museum in Rabat currently houses an Atlasaurus' skeleton in an exhibition.
This is not the first time Moroccan authorities have dealt with a case like this. In April 2017, a 66-million-year-old sea dinosaur's skeleton was returned to Morocco after an agreement with the Binoche and Giquello auction company to remove the piece from an exhibition in a Paris hotel.
The Atlasaurus' tail was acquired by the Morton auction house from Petra Gallery, which specializes in fossils and minerals, and was found in Morocco, according to Morton's Press and Public Relations representative Kristina Velfu. Ernesto Duran, Petra Gallery's director, said the fossil was legally bought in the United States and both a receipt and legal import document exist to prove purchase.
“This is the first time Morton agrees to sell a paleontological piece, and we do it to help the earthquake victims,” Becerril told La Razon, “this is a rare piece that will begin with a special price of a million pesos.”
Morton's Allocation Manager Eduardo Lopez Morton told EFE the piece has all its legal documents in order.
In Mexico, selling fossils found in Mexican territories are illegal, as they are considered national property, but the law does not prohibit the sale of fossils found outside its borders.
The Altasaurus Imelakei, the “giant Atlas reptile,” is believed to have been up to 18 meters long, nine meters tall and weighed up to 22 tons.