20 March 2019
[Note: this book review was scheduled to run in the May 2019 issue of EARTH magazine, but with last week’s announcement that EARTH was being shuttered, I was notified that nothing contributors or freelancers had written scheduled for after April 2019 would be published, and the rights were returned to me. While that’s disappointing, it frees me up to publish it here instead. This review was improved with edits by Sara Pratt. Enjoy!]
In 2012, the mounted skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar was sold at auction in New York City for just over a million dollars. The Cretaceous dinosaur fossil originated in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, and made its way to Manhattan via the U.K. and Florida. Some would say it was “smuggled.” Paige Williams wrote about the incident for the New Yorker magazine shortly after it occurred, and has now expanded that profile into a robust book that covers everything that led up to the incident and everything that occurred after.
“The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy” is centered on Eric Prokopi, a Florida fossil dealer. Williams spends a substantial amount of time delving into his history, character and relationships with family and friends. She paints a nonjudgmental portrait, but she includes assessments of his business decisions from interviewees who describe him as reckless, if not unethical. Prokopi made a life for himself and his family structured around the intense joy he found in fossils: He discovered them, prepared them for display and sold them. Eventually, he went “big” with the enormous Tarbosaurus skeleton, which took more than a year to bring to sale, and which he hoped would net him more than a million dollars. Instead, it landed him in jail.
The essential tension in the book arises from the question of the value that commercial fossil hunters bring to paleontology. Whether you’re inclined to view Prokopi as a protagonist or an antihero is doubtless colored by where you come down on this question. Williams explores arguments for and against extracting and selling fossils, a discussion that acknowledges the merit that comes from discoveries or recoveries that wouldn’t otherwise happen, as well as the public outreach value that fossils can inspire when available for the public to access and own. For instance, “Sue the T. rex,” the most famous dinosaur at Chicago’s Field Museum, which receives 1.8 million visitors a year, is only there because of an auction. But there are significant downsides of private sales, such as the loss of taphonomic information about the fossil’s context in sedimentary rocks, and the fact that some fossil owners are not keen on sharing their new possessions. Astounding fossils, once sold, can disappear from public view, with scientific access lost forever.
And then there are the legal ramifications, which are complicated by notions of liberty and private versus public ownership, and the government’s ability to seize privately held materials, domestically or internationally. From the Boston Tea Party to the fall of communism, huge currents in social history lay the foundation for Prokopi and “his” Tarbosaurus skeleton. All of us are subject to these historical currents but Williams does a fine job showing their direct relevance to the way the saga of this particular dinosaur unfolds.
The book also includes lengthy tangential discussions on topics that are both foundational to the story, as well as near and dear to my own heart: Roy Chapman Andrews, Mary Anning and the post-communist political history of Mongolia. These historical discussions serve the greater narrative by laying the foundation for key characters in the larger story who collaborate or antagonize Prokopi. Each is well researched, and could stand alone as an essay worth reading.
Anning ran a fossil business out of Lyme Regis (“She sells seashells by the seashore”), in Dorset, England, not far from where Prokopi’s collaborator, the British fossil merchant Chris Moore, would set up his own shop. Andrews, often cited as the inspiration for “Indiana Jones,” was an explorer for the American Museum of Natural History, and the discoverer of the first dinosaur eggs, at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs. Without his swashbuckling escapades, we likely wouldn’t know as much about dinosaurs from this remote corner of the globe. The Mongolian history chapter is comprehensive and descriptions of travel and culture in the country are accurate. (I served as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia in 1998–1999). The President of Mongolia at the time of the 2012 auction was Elbegdorj (most Mongolians only use a single name), a darling of American right-wing politicians and one of the principal forces in moving Mongolians into a free-market economy. Alerted by a lieutenant to the sale, Elbegdorj initiated a lawsuit that ultimately resulted in the skeleton being repatriated to Mongolia.
It’s wrenching to read about the stress that this imposes on Prokopi and his family as they move from their repossessed Florida mansion to Tidewater Virginia, and then Prokopi goes to jail, emerges again, and moves onto a tugboat. (His probation officer asks, “Why can’t you be normal?”) But it is also inspirational to read about the bloom of wonder that unfurls in Ulaanbaatar once the Tarbosaurus has its homecoming. In William’s narrative, the ancient bones take on a mythical character akin to Chinggis (“Ghenghis”) Khan, inspiring patriotism in the people of the Central Asian steppes.
We also get the fascinating backstory of Bolor Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist, formerly of the American Museum of Natural History, and a National Geographic Explorer. She is the one who triggers the chain of events that ultimately stops the sale and results in Prokopi’s arrest.
“The Dinosaur Artist” screams out for comparison with Susan Orlean’s 1998 book “The Orchid Thief,” not only for the structure of their titles, or because both authors are staff writers for the New Yorker, but also because the principal characters are flawed, nonconformist Floridians who operate in a legal gray area collecting natural resources from public lands. I’ve read both books, and can say that while I really learned a lot from Williams, the writing in Orlean’s book is much more elegant and polished. That said, however, I think the events depicted in “The Dinosaur Artist” carry more weight in the grand scheme of things, and thus the book should be required reading for anyone interested in how fossils relate to the worlds of economics, trade, politics and the law.