Cover image for The dinosaur artist : obsession, betrayal, and the quest for Earth's ultimate trophy / Paige Williams.
Title:
The dinosaur artist : obsession, betrayal, and the quest for Earth's ultimate trophy / Paige Williams.
ISBN:
9780316382533
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Hachette Books, 2018.

©2018
Physical Description:
xxii, 410 pages ; 24 cm
Contents:
"Superb tyrannosaurus skeleton" -- Land O' Lakes -- Garcia, king of the Ice Age -- Dive -- Deal -- Tucson -- Big game -- Middleman in Japan -- Hollywood headhunters -- The warrior and the explorer -- The flaming cliffs -- Market conditions -- "Go Gobi" -- The ghost of Mary Anning -- The last dinosaur -- The President's predicament -- United States of America v. One tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton -- Raid! -- Verdict -- Tarbomania -- Petersburg low -- The dinosaur bus.
Abstract:
In 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: "a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton." In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar, a close cousin to the most famous animal that ever lived. The fossils now on display in a Manhattan event space had been unearthed in Mongolia, more than 6,000 miles away. At eight-feet high and 24 feet long, the specimen was spectacular, and when the gavel sounded the winning bid was over $1 million. Eric Prokopi, a thirty-eight-year-old Floridian, was the man who had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A onetime swimmer who spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi's singular obsession with fossils fueled a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens, to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But there was a problem. This time, facing financial strain, had Prokopi gone too far? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. As an international custody battle ensued, Prokopi watched as his own world unraveled. In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history and a seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. A story that stretches from Florida's Land O' Lakes to the Gobi Desert, The Dinosaur Artist illuminates the history of fossil collecting--a murky, sometimes risky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, enthusiast and opportunist, can easily blur. In her first book, Paige Williams has given readers an irresistible story that spans continents, cultures, and millennia as she examines the question of who, ultimately, owns the past.
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Summary

Summary

New Yorker writer Paige Williams "does for fossils what Susan Orlean did for orchids" (Book Riot) in this "tremendous" (David Grann) true tale of one Florida man's attempt to sell a dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia--a story "steeped in natural history, human nature, commerce, crime, science, and politics" (Rebecca Skloot).

In 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: "a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton." In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar , a close cousin to the most famous animal that ever lived. The fossils now on display in a Manhattan event space had been unearthed in Mongolia, more than 6,000 miles away. At eight-feet high and 24 feet long, the specimen was spectacular, and when the gavel sounded the winning bid was over $1 million.

Eric Prokopi, a thirty-eight-year-old Floridian, was the man who had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A onetime swimmer who spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi's singular obsession with fossils fueled a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens, to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

But there was a problem. This time, facing financial strain, had Prokopi gone too far? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. As an international custody battle ensued, Prokopi watched as his own world unraveled.

In the tradition of The Orchid Thief , The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history and a seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. A story that stretches from Florida's Land O' Lakes to the Gobi Desert, The Dinosaur Artist illuminates the history of fossil collecting--a murky, sometimes risky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, enthusiast and opportunist, can easily blur.

In her first book, Paige Williams has given readers an irresistible story that spans continents, cultures, and millennia as she examines the question of who, ultimately, owns the past.


Author Notes

Paige Williams is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a Mississippi native . A National Magazine Award winner for feature writing, she has had her journalism anthologized in various volumes of the Best American series, including The Best American Magazine Writing and The Best American Crime Writing . She is the Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and has taught at schools including the University of Mississippi, New York University, the Missouri School of Journalism, and, at M.I.T., in the Knight Science Journalism program. Williams has been a fellow of The MacDowell Colony and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. At The New Yorker , she has written about suburban politics in Detroit, the death penalty in Alabama, paleoanthropology in South Africa, and the theft of cultural palimony from the Tlingit peoples of Alaska.


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

New Yorker staff writer Williams uses the story of fossil enthusiast Eric Prokopi to illuminate the murky world of modern fossil hunting in this fascinating account. The story begins with Eric's discovery, around age five, of a fossilized shark tooth off the coast of Florida, which sparked a lifelong fascination with prehistoric life. Eric's passion led him to take a cataloguing position with the Florida Museum of Natural History, and later to teach himself how to prepare fossils for exhibition. Williams carries this tale through Eric's starting a business to sell his acquisitions, to his prosecution in 2012 by the federal government for smuggling into the U.S. and auctioning off Tarbosaurus bones deemed the rightful property of Mongolia, where they were found. Williams provides just the right amount of context, from the long-standing tensions between paleontologists and commercial fossil dealers, to Mongolia's hardscrabble history since the days of Genghis Khan. To this foundation of solid research, she adds a vivid storytelling style. The combination results in a triumphant book that will appeal to a wide audience. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

AS FAR AS CASE LAW GOES, there are more consequential decisions than The United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton. Few, however, feature a more charismatic defendant. In 2013, the United States literally arrested the skeleton of a giant apex predator dinosaur slumbering in a warehouse in Queens. But understanding how this came to be first requires a panoptic survey of everything from the world of the Late Cretaceous period to the 1990s rise of right-wing politics in Mongolia. This is the dizzying task that Paige Williams, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has set for herself in "The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy." What began for her as the tale of an unusual court case involving a rogue fossil hunter unspools in this book into a wide-ranging examination of the ways that commercialism, ambition, politics and science collide. (Just a glance at some of the index's entries reveals the scope: Genghis Khan, Newt Gingrich, St. Augustine, Stegosaurus and Preet Bharara.) When this "big, sexy" - and, to paleontologists, obviously illegal - dinosaur appears on the auction block in New York City, commercial and academic worlds alike are aghast. Simply put, the dinosaur is from Mongolia and you can't sell di- This nosaurs from Mongolia. Behind the stolen bones is Eric Prokopi, who overnight becomes "either the bravest or most reckless son of a bitch" other fossil dealers had ever seen. The life of a globe-trotting dinosaur smuggler might bring to mind Thomas Crown meets Tintin, but one of the revelations of the book is just how mundane the skulduggery of Prokopi's crime actually was. He simply went to trade shows, saw who was dealing hot fossils in the open and made contacts. After repeated jaunts across the world to meet with an extremely shady (and often extremely drunken) Mongolian middleman, Prokopi establishes a pipeline for his purloined paleontological finds. As a reader, being given entry by Williams into this underworld, privy to the secret knowledge of a black market, is a thrill. As Prokopi's financial situation becomes increasingly tenuous, these dinosaur bones become his only hope for avoiding ruin. "A batch of dinosaurs would put everything straight," Williams writes at one point, as the noose tightens. It's hard not to feel for Prokopi, who ultimately ends up in prison for his smuggling. The only crime that would seem to separate him from the other dealers who had long peddled hot bones in the open at the Tlicson Gem & Mineral Society, and elsewhere, is sheer audacity - that is, flying too close to the sun on the pathetic, undersize forearms of T. bataar. The strange underground world Prokopi inhabits inevitably brings us in contact with some serious oddballs, each of whom is introduced by Williams with the economy and evocative precision of a haiku. In affectless, purposeful prose we get a stream of increasingly strange and piquant factoids about these people, who seem to emerge straight out of a Coen brothers movie: One fossil dealer likes cockroaches, Milton Friedman and Greek triremes. Prokopi's mother is a nudist, while his mentor is a former door-to-door crab salesman who once won a soap-selling contest. The father of a character introduced in the epilogue has a "love affair" with a bottlenose dolphin - although, by that point in the book, nothing would seem eccentric enough to warrant surprise. All of this is presented from a narrative God'seye view, and Williams so skillfully conceals the sausage-making of reporting that when we're told, for instance, what someone was thinking while urinating in the desert in the middle of the night several years ago, we accept it as truth. But where the strange, seedy human world of the dinosaur artist is richly realized, less so is the alien world of the dinosaur at the center of the story itself. There is no introduction to the lost world these monsters stalked, what Mongolia was like 70 million years ago, or how a creature as preposterous as T. bataar ever came to exist on our planet. Besides a few unavoidable references to the creature's specifications and bite strength, for the most part the dinosaur at the center of the story serves the role of MacGuffin. That's because at heart, this is not a book about dinosaurs, it's a book about people; a true-crime book, and a thoroughly reported one at that. It is peppered with useful precis on towering figures from natural history - we join the 19th-century naturalist and savant Mary Anning, for instance, plying the Jurassic Coast for ichthyosaurs, and stand with the father of Deep Time himself, James Hutton, as he stares down the abyss of time represented in an outcrop in Scotland, contemplating the successive layers of earth that created it. But such potted histories are eddies in the narrative stream that carries Eric Prokopi from taciturn Florida high school swim star to eventual bone smuggler and felon. In the end Prokopi, like T. bataar, remains something of a cipher in spite of Williams's nanoscale examination of him, his family, friends, associates, finances, even home decor. Sometimes this intimacy borders on overexposure, though it also produces some arresting vignettes: One of the most effective passages meticulously recounts Prokopi's drive to prison in order to surrender - a trip rendered both comically mundane and dreadful. But Prokopi himself, who doesn't say much and seems constitutionally incapable of showing his cards, remains elusive. Instead, the book's most memorable character may be Mongolia itself, a rugged physical and political terrain that defies easy generalization or the exoticizing accounts of Westerners. We pick up the thread with the mind-blowing global conquests of Genghis Khan and follow it through to the early 20th century, and the accounts of the American naturalist and inveterate self-promoter Roy Chapman Andrews, who briefly descended on Mongolia on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History, forging there a romantic persona as a man committed to digging up dinosaurs. Andrews's life is almost too colorful to recount, and the contributions he made to popular interest in paleontology were real and lasting. But as with many sepiatoned institutional heroes, the luster of his accomplishments has dimmed in retrospect, not least because he minimized the contributions of his Mongolian assistants in service of a queasy American imperialism. In 1932, the Natural History Museum pulled out of the country as Mongolia descended into Stalinist Communism, executing 30,000 intellectuals and Buddhist leaders, eradicating traditional garb, Mongolian vertical script and Khan as a symbol of national pride - all bourgeois indulgences. Sixty years later, when Communism fell, the country was once more flooded with opportunistic Americans, many of them hatched in right-wing American think tanks. It was in the wake of this post-Soviet moment of free-market national ransacking that Prokopi found an opening to extract the country's dinosaur heritage. But just as Khan was suddenly loosed from his symbolic exile and restored as a totem of national pride when Communism fell, when Prokopi falls, hope for a future of Mongolian self-determination comes in the form of a far more ancient, even fiercer symbol of restored national pride: T. bataar. PETER BRANNEN is the author of "The Ends of the World." The book's most memorable character may be Mongolia itself.


Library Journal Review

Accomplished New Yorker writer Williams brings her journalistic hand to the intriguing world of for-profit fossil trade, highlighting the people who find, prepare, and auction fabulous works of prehistory, including large dinosaurs and Ice Age mammals. The narrative focuses on the life of Eric Prokopi, a fossil prodigy who has a natural gift at finding and reconstituting prehistoric creatures. Prokopi's gift led him to selling his work at high-stakes and high-profit fossil auctions. His procurement of a Mongolian Tyrannosaurus bataar became the grounds for an international dispute over the legal ownership of natural history resources. Williams skillfully navigates this unique nexus of various fields, including paleontology, law, and international politics, leading readers through a wild topography of deep prehistory and modern black markets. Various issues are raised, including disputes between private fossil collectors and academic paleontologists; the market value of a dinosaur skeleton vs. its scientific value; and the proper enforcement of antiquities' laws. VERDICT Prokopi's case is a fascinating example of the pull of prehistoric fossils and the power of law. Nature enthusiasts, scientists, and politics buffs will sink their teeth into this intriguing account.-Jeffrey Meyer, Mt. -Pleasant P.L., IA © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

Abbreviationsp. xi
Author's Notep. xiii
Introduction: Originsp. xv
Part I
1 "Superb Tyrannosaurus Skeleton"p. 3
2 Land O'Lakesp. 16
3 Garcia, King of the Ice Agep. 22
4 Divep. 31
5 Dealp. 41
6 Tucsonp. 52
7 Big Gamep. 63
8 Middleman in Japanp. 79
9 Hollywood Headhuntersp. 85
Part II
10 The Warrior and the Explorerp. 93
11 The Flaming Cliffsp. 105
12 Market Conditionsp. 116
13 "Go Gobi"p. 132
14 The Ghost of Mary Anningp. 147
15 The Last Dinosaurp. 162
16 The President's Predicamentp. 176
17 United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeletonp. 194
Part III
18 Raid!p. 207
19 Verdictp. 219
20 Tarbomaniap. 232
21 Petersburg Lowp. 242
22 The Dinosaur Busp. 252
Epiloguep. 263
Acknowledgmentsp. 279
Quick Reference to Deep Timep. 287
Selected Bibliographyp. 289
Notesp. 293
Indexp. 383