Nicolas Cage returns stolen dinosaur skull he bought for $276,000

Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage has agreed to turn over a smuggled dinosaur skull he bought at auction for $276,000 (£185,000) to US authorities so it can be returned to Mongolia.

The rare 67 million year old Tyrannosaurus bataar skull was illegally smuggled into America and sold at auction to Cage, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The Con Air actor reportedly outbid fellow movie star Leonardo DiCaprio in the auction in the I.M. Chait gallery, Beverly Hills.

U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara filed a civil forfeiture complaint last week to take possession of the skull, which will be repatriated to Mongolia.

The gallery, which is also not accused of wrongdoing, had previously purchased and sold an illegally smuggled dinosaur skeleton from convicted paleontologist Eric Prokopi, whom Bharara called a "one-man black market in prehistoric fossils."

The lawsuit did not specifically name Cage as the owner, but Cage's publicist confirmed that the actor bought the skull in March 2007.

Three Tyrannosaurus bataar skeletons have already been recovered by US authorities and returned to Mongolia. Credit: Reuters

Authorities said Cage voluntarily agreed to turn over the skull after learning of the circumstances.

Cage's publicist Alex Schack said that the actor received a certificate of authenticity from the gallery and was contacted by the Department of Homeland Security in July 2014 to inform him that the skull might have been stolen.

Following a determination by investigators that the skull in fact had been taken illegally from Mongolia, Cage agreed to hand it over, Schack said.

It was unclear whether the skull was specifically connected to Prokopi, who pleaded guilty in December 2012 to smuggling a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton out of Mongolia's Gobi desert.

As part of his guilty plea, Prokopi - who was later jailed for three months - helped prosecutors recover at least 17 other fossils.

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

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

The Tyrannosaurus bataar 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.