December 21, 2015 / 10:19 PM / in 2 years

Actor Nicolas Cage seen returning stolen dinosaur skull he bought

Actor Nicholas Cage smiles after placing his handprints in the forecourt at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood in this file photo taken August 14, 2001. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/Files

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It appears Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage is the mystery owner who agreed last week to forfeit a rare stolen dinosaur skull to U.S. authorities so it can be returned to the Mongolian government.

The office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, filed a civil forfeiture complaint on Wednesday to take possession of the skull, which will be repatriated to Mongolia.

The lawsuit and a press release from Bharara’s office did not specifically name Cage as the owner. But the lawsuit described the skull as having been bought at auction from a Beverly Hills gallery, I.M. Chait, in March 2007 for $276,000.

The details match those of Cage’s purchase, which made headlines after the Hollywood star encountered financial difficulties in subsequent years.

Authorities would not confirm the identity of the owner, and a lawyer and a publicist for Cage did not respond to requests for comment.

The “National Treasure” actor is not accused of wrongdoing, and authorities said the owner voluntarily agreed to turn over the skull after learning of the circumstances.

Cage outbid fellow movie star Leonardo DiCaprio for the skull, according to prior news reports.

The I.M. Chait gallery had previously purchased and sold an illegally smuggled duck-billed dinosaur skeleton from convicted paleontologist Eric Prokopi, whom Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called a “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils.”

The Chait gallery has not been accused of wrongdoing. A representative did not return a request for comment on Monday.

It was unclear whether the Nicolas Cage skull was specifically connected to Prokopi, who pleaded guilty in December 2012 to smuggling a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton out of Mongolia’s Gobi desert and was later sentenced to three months in prison.

As part of his guilty plea, Prokopi helped prosecutors recover at least 17 other dinosaur fossils.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell, who prosecuted Prokopi, was also the lead government lawyer in the Cage case, according to court records.

The Tyrannosaurus bataar, like its more famous relative Tyrannosaurus rex, was a carnivore that lived approximately 70 million years ago. Its remains have been discovered only in Mongolia, which criminalized the export of dinosaur fossils in 1924.

Since 2012, Bharara’s office has recovered more than a dozen Mongolian fossils, including three full Tyrannosaurus bataar skeletons.

“Each of these fossils represents a culturally and scientifically important artifact looted from its rightful owner,” Bharara said in a statement last week.

Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Andrew Hay

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