The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Science, and the Global Quest for Fossils

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Science, and the Global Quest for Fossils

by Paige Williams


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In this 2018 New York Times Notable Book, Paige Williams "does for fossils what Susan Orlean did for orchids" (Book Riot) in her account of one Florida man's reckless 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 twenty-four 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 collegiate-level 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 actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage.

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. An international custody battle ensued, and Prokopi watched his own world unravel.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316382519
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 09/10/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 418,776
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

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.

Table of Contents

Abbreviations xi

Author's Note xiii

Introduction: Origins xv

Part I

1 "Superb Tyrannosaurus Skeleton" 3

2 Land O'Lakes 16

3 Garcia, King of the Ice Age 22

4 Dive 31

5 Deal 41

6 Tucson 52

7 Big Game 63

8 Middleman in Japan 79

9 Hollywood Headhunters 85

Part II

10 The Warrior and the Explorer 93

11 The Flaming Cliffs 105

12 Market Conditions 116

13 "Go Gobi" 132

14 The Ghost of Mary Anning 147

15 The Last Dinosaur 162

16 The President's Predicament 176

17 United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton 194

Part III

18 Raid! 207

19 Verdict 219

20 Tarbomania 232

21 Petersburg Low 242

22 The Dinosaur Bus 252

Epilogue 263

Acknowledgments 279

Quick Reference to Deep Time 287

Selected Bibliography 289

Notes 293

Index 383

What People are Saying About This

#1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

“THE DINOSAUR ARTIST is a breathtaking feat of writing and reporting: a strange, irresistible and beautifully written story steeped in natural history, human nature, commerce, crime, science, and politics. It's at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply sobering. I was blown away by the depth of its characters, its vivid details, and Paige Williams’ incredible command of the facts. Bottom line: this is an extraordinary debut by one of the best nonfiction writers we've got.”

#1 New York Times-bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon - David Grann

“Paige Williams is that rare reporter who burrows into a subject until all of its dimensions, all of its darkened corners and secret chambers, are illuminated. With THE DINOSAUR ARTIST, she has done more than reveal a gripping true crime story; she has cast light on everything from obsessive fossil hunters to how the earth evolved. This is a tremendous book.”

New York Times-bestselling author of Michelle and Code Girls - Liza Mundy

"I am in awe of Paige Williams. Every line of THE DINOSAUR ARTIST--from her deeply informed discussions of paleontology and the law to her often withering and hilarious descriptions--was a pleasure to read. Few nonfiction writers are capable of mining their characters with such a winning blend of sympathy, wonder, and rigor.”

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The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earths Ultimate Trophy 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Magerber More than 1 year ago
I received an advanced reading copy courtesy of Hachette and NetGalley. Thanks! This was a great read. The story of a man who was prosecuted for illegally selling a dinosaur skeleton that originated in Mongolia, Williams does a great job of explaining the history of paleontology and commercial fossil hunting, and the chain of events that led to the prosecution in this case. It was an engaging read, and I highly recommend it.
Sunshine1006 More than 1 year ago
When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. I have always been fascinated with dinosaurs. This is a story of Eric Prokopi who was a fossil hunter and dealer. He started looking for fossils when he was just a kid, As he got older, he found there was big money to be made selling all manner of fossils.whether he found them or bought them from others. In the meantime,  paleontologists and scientists heard that Eric would be auctioning off a complete skeleton he had found in Mongolia. The President of Mongolia was advised that the skeleton was being sold and that he needed to claim it for Mongolia. An attorney was hired to get the auction stopped until the ownership could be resolved.  Who owns the fossils, can they be sold to private citizens, should they stay in the country of origin? Endlessly fascinating. This book was extremely well researched and written. I received this book from Net Galley. I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy . All thoughts and opinions are my own.