Nicolas Cage has agreed to turn over a Tyrannosaurus bataar skull he bought in March 2007 for $276,000, after learning it had been stolen. Cage bought it from Beverly Hills gallery I.M. Chait, which illegally acquired it from convicted paleontologist Eric Prokopi, the only one accused of wrongdoing. US authorities will return the rare skull to the Mongolian government.

This bizarre situation might not be that crazy for a man like Nicolas Cage, who played in a 2004 movie called National Treasure. The adventure film is about a historian who races to find the mythical Templar Treasure before a group of mercenaries.

Alex Schack, the Hollywood actor’s publicist, stated in an email that the gallery handed Cage a certificate of authenticity. In July 2014, seven years later, the Department of Homeland Security contacted the actor to inform him that the skull might have been stolen.

Nicolas Cage. Photograph: Luca Ghidoni/FilmMagic/The Guardian

Once the investigation concluded and the authorities confirmed that the skull had been taken illegally from Mongolia, specifically from the Gobi Desert, Cage voluntarily agreed to return it.

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a civil forfeiture complaint last week to order the return of the Tyrannosaurus bataar skull, which will be repatriated to Mongolia. He called Prokopi a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils”.

As part of his guilty plea, the paleontologist was forced to help recover more than 17 other fossils. In 2012 he was taken into custody to face charges of smuggling illegal goods and possessing stolen property, as The Guardian reports. Last year he was sentenced to three months in jail.

Since 2012, Bharara’s office has managed to recover three complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeletons and more than a dozen other Mongolian dinosaur remains. He pointed out last week that each one of those fossils represented a culturally and scientifically valuable object stolen from its rightful owner.

“Cultural artifacts such as this Bataar skull represent a part of Mongolian national cultural heritage,” as Bharara’s office special agent Glenn Sorge said in a statement. “It belongs to the people of Mongolia. These priceless antiquities are not souvenirs to be sold to private collectors or hobbyists.”

Similarly to its famous relative Tyrannosaurus rex, the Tyrannosaurus bataar was a carnivore that lived 70 million years ago. Its remains have only appeared in Mongolia, where authorities forbid the export of dinosaur fossils in 1924.

Source: The Guardian