Bronze treasures, prehistoric bird and other relics returned to China
Smuggled artifacts discovered by CBP officers in Florida and a 120 million-year-old dinosaur fossil held by CBP officers in Ohio were recently returned to China. Two Florida art dealers were arrested. Francois Lorin, 74, maintained a scheme to smuggle antiquities into the country. Eric Prokopi, 38, a self-described commercial paleontologist, made a living selling dinosaur bones. Both dealers forged documents to mislead officers.
The saga began in 2011 when a shipment from a Hong Kong trade show arrived at Miami International Airport. It caught the eye of Officer Reynaldo Marte because the export certificate was missing. Marte, along with officers David Fajardo, Fernald Brown, Raymond Collazo and Jose Negron, decided to open the crate.
“We found items that were extremely old and seemed out-of-place,” Fajardo recalls of the nearly 500 objects that were haphazardly packed with many items not even listed on the mismatched paperwork they found in the shipment. That raised more suspicions. Within the batch were ancient jade disks and cylinders, a bronze mirror and bronze container inlaid with gold and silver.
Marte contacted the shipper, Lorin & Son, LLC, and requested evidence showing the shipment was legally imported into the U.S., explaining the artifacts would be held by CBP until that proof was produced. Instead, Marte was contacted several times by the shipper’s lawyer, demanding that the shipment be released to his client, Francois Lorin.
That heightened suspicions even more.
“It was odd to have a lawyer call so many times and show so much interest,” said Marte. “He even threatened me legally.”
Meanwhile, CBP’s Office of Fines, Penalties and Forfeitures called an expert in Asian antiquities to evaluate the shipment. Their hunch proved right. The batch was valued at more than $3.1 million, more than double the $1.4 million claimed by Lorin in the shipping papers.
However, smuggling contraband wasn’t what snared Lorin. Through his lawyer, Lorin submitted forged documents falsely showing the artifacts in the shipment were legally purchased before 2009, when an agreement between the U.S. and China took hold. That accord prohibits imports of certain antiquities dating before 907 without permission from the Chinese or evidence the import complies with the agreement.
At that point, the case was turned over to Alicia Centeno, a Miami-based Homeland Security special agent specializing in artifact smuggling. Like the CBP officers, she requested that Lorin prove when he purchased the artifacts. And, like the CBP officers, she experienced the same stonewalling.
Lorin’s lawyers flooded her office with paperwork for all 500 items. “They tried to confuse and frustrate us,” with overwhelming documentation, she said. Many of those documents listed sellers Lorin claimed to have purchased artifacts from. When Centeno contacted them—a slow and laborious effort—many admitted backdating invoices for the Florida art dealer.
The stalling tactics didn’t work and the case was eventually prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office, Southern District of Florida. Lorin pleaded guilty to obstruction and was sentenced to three years’ probation, received a $50,000 fine and agreed to forfeit 21 Chinese artifacts.
Then there’s Prokopi. The fossil he tried smuggling into the United States, a bird about the size of a cafeteria tray, might have been the star attraction of the items returned to the Chinese, but it was just the tip of the iceberg for this “one-man black market in prehistoric fossils,” as one U.S. attorney described him.
Prokopi, who ran his fossil business, Everything Earth, out of his Florida home, has a record of pilfering dinosaur bones from China and Mongolia. The bird fossil, or “micro raptor” as it’s called, was just one of many fossilized skeletons he was charged with illegally importing, some worth millions of dollars.
The relic, discovered by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspector in 2010 at a UPS terminal in Kentucky, was turned over to Russell Hack, a CBP import specialist at the Port of Cleveland. Hack recalls that Prokopi submitted documents stating the fossil was an ornament, a “craft rock” and later claiming it was a fossil replica. He said an evaluator from a local natural history museum concluded it was real. Hack then turned the case over to Homeland Security investigators in Cleveland and New York. Prokopi pleaded guilty to illegally importing dinosaur fossils, served three months in jail, was fined $300 and sentenced to 15 months’ probation.
The raptor fossil was among the pilfered artifacts repatriated Dec. 10 at the Chinese embassy, but an agreement between the two governments will permit the bird to be displayed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh for a year. China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, hailed it as “another story of China-U.S. cooperation.”
China’s historical wealth is “constantly subjected to looting and international trafficking,” noted Gu Yucai, China’s state administrator of cultural heritage. However, he praised the CBP officers, Homeland Security investigators and prosecutors for their work in returning the cultural treasures. “The U.S. government has demonstrated a responsible attitude for implementing international treaties and honoring bilateral commitments,” said Yucai.
The CBP’s officers and staff involved with the recovery of the artifacts were also recognized at the repatriation ceremony. “We were very well received,” said Officer Fajardo, who along with officers Fernald Brown, Reynaldo Marte and attorney Samuel Brandt, was invited to the event. Dennis McKenzie, representing CBP headquarters, also attended. “The Chinese were very appreciative and made us feel welcome,” said Fajardo.
Brandt, an attorney in CBP’s Office of the Associate Chief Counsel in Miami, coordinated the case with the CBP officers, Homeland Security investigators and the U.S. attorney’s office. The chief counsel’s office provides legal advice in all cultural property cases handled by the agency.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation's borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.