Robert Painter of Houston’s Painter Law Firm says he first met the man who would become president of Mongolia at a policy conference in New Orleans in 2003. Elbegdorj Tsakhia was attending the Harvard Kennedy School of Government after serving as the prime minister of the former Soviet satellite state. Painter, then a senior associate with Fulbright & Jaworski, had developed a sideline of advising emerging democracies around the world as a founder of the nonprofit Bellwether Forum, which has done educational and election transparency work in Poland and Romania, as well.
Fast forward to 2009, when Tsakhia won election as president of the newly democratic nation. Painter was there for the vote with Bellwether as an officially designated foreign observer. Since 2003, Painter writes in an email, he has visited Mongolia close to 20 times, working “on various projects, including pairing Western investors to Mongolian mining and mineral activities.”
Last month, Tsakhia tapped Painter to halt an auction of a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton that may have originated in the Mongolian Gobi Desert. Dallas-based Heritage Auctions Inc. had scheduled the event for May 20.
On May 19, Painter obtained for Tsakhia, as president of Mongolia, an ex parte temporary restraining order from 44th District Judge Carlos Cortez in Dallas, barring Heritage Auctions from selling the bones until a June 1 hearing on Tsakhia’s motion for a temporary injunction.
Also on May 19, Tsakhia filed a petition in Elbegdorf Tsakhia as president of Mongolia v. Heritage Auctions, Inc. in the same court, seeking that “the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton be repatriated to the Mongolian nation, for the cultural-benefit of the people of Mongolia.” The petition also alleges that Heritage Auctions had refused to disclose the owner of the skeleton.
James Krause, a partner in Dallas’ Friedman & Feiger, represents Heritage Auctions. He says the objections of the Mongolian president a day before the scheduled auction took Heritage Auctions “by surprise.” Krause says — and Painter confirms — that Heritage Auctions has reached an agreement letting the Mongolian president send scientists to New York to inspect the dinosaur bones, an inspection scheduled for June 5 or 6.
Heritage Auctions has also agreed, both lawyers say, to provide the documentation about the skeleton’s ownership. The two attorneys say they have agreed to extend the TRO until the Mongolians inspect the bones and review the ownership documents. On May 29, Cortez signed an order extending the restraining order and canceling the June 1 temporary injunction.
Krause says he expects “there’s going to be a lot of sleuthing,” but that “nobody may ever know,” the bones’ exact provenance. At the moment, Krause says, the understanding is they came from Asia through England.
“The real question is going to be where they were before,” he says. But for Heritage Auctions, “there is not much reason” to not cooperate with Mongolia, he says. “It’s not our bones. We are kind of in the middle of things.”
Painter says he looks forward to seeing the bones in June.
-- Miriam Rozen