NEW YORK (AP) -- It may be the first time a dead dinosaur is flying for free.
U.S. authorities in New York are returning a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus skeleton to the Mongolian government this week.
The artifact will be flown to its native land free of charge via Korean Air, U.S. and Mongolian officials said Monday while announcing the repatriation of the priceless artifact.
"We are very pleased to have played a pivotal role in returning Mongolia's million-dollar baby," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. "Of course, that million-dollar price tag, as high as it is, doesn't begin to describe the true value of an ancient artifact that is part of the fabric of a country's natural history and cultural heritage."
The skeleton had been looted from Mongolia's Gobi Desert and illegally smuggled into the U.S. by fossils dealer Eric Prokopi, authorities said. Prokopi, who bought and sold whole and partial dinosaur skeletons out of his Florida home, illegally imported the bones into the U.S. then assembled them into a skeleton, authorities said.
The dinosaur was seized by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after it was sold at auction in New York for over $1 million last year. The government said the skeleton was mislabeled as reptile bones from Great Britain.
By law, any dinosaur fossils found in Mongolia belong to the country and its people.
"It's really important that as nations, we recognize there's a difference between art sold in the regular course of business, and then there are things that are truly national heritage," said ICE director John Morton.
Prokopi, of Gainesville, Fla., pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy, the fraudulent transfer of the bones and making false statements to customs authorities.
Mongolia President Tsakhia Elbegdorj has thanked U.S. authorities for returning the dinosaur that once stood 8 feet tall and was 24 feet long. It'll eventually be displayed as a centerpiece of a new museum called Central Dinosaur Museum of Mongolia.