Customs agents have seized fossilized dinosaur eggs believed to have been smuggled illegally from China and auctioned for $420,000 (EUR 319,708), officials said.
The 22 eggs, each 65 million years old, were so well-preserved that embryonic raptors are visible inside 19 of them. They were seized late last week from the Bonhams & Butterfields auction house in Los Angeles, officials said Thursday.
The eggs were auctioned in December to an undisclosed buyer, but the transaction was scrubbed before money changed hands after concerns were raised about the legality of their export.
"That sale was canceled and the property turned over to the U.S. government," said Levi Morgan, a spokesman for the auction house in San Francisco.
The eggs were found in China's Guangdong province in 1984, shipped to Taiwan and in 2004 to an American collector in Florida, according to a customs agent's affidavit filed last month in federal court.
Authorities found that the shipper in Taiwan had no paperwork to prove the fossil $500 (EUR 380), according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Morgan said the auction house essentially had to trust that the American seller had the legal right to consign the eggs, because it isn't able to verify export documents.
No arrests have been made, but the auction house is cooperating with the investigation, the AP reports.
Customs agents are holding the eggs as evidence, but "the goal is to return them to China," spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.
Fossil smuggling is a serious crime, said Robert Schoch, head of the customs office of investigations in Los Angeles.
"These represent the cultural identity of something significant to China. ... It goes right to that country's identity," he said.
Last year, an Australian mineral dealer pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court to illegally importing hundreds of fossilized dinosaur eggs from China. He was sentenced to probation and fined $20,000 (EUR 15,224). The eggs were returned to China.