On a Sunday in May 2012, the fossilized skeleton of an eight-foot-tall T. rex relative called Tarbosaurus bataar went up for auction in New York City. The bidding started at $875,000, but there was a problem: the bones had been poached from Mongolia and were in the United States illegally.
At the New York auction, a lawyer working on behalf of the Mongolian government dialed up a judge and tried to stop the sale. Nearly 1,000 miles away in Florida, Eric Prokopi, the man who had obtained the bones from a Mongolian dealer and painstakingly prepared them for sale, paced the beach where he was celebrating his daughter’s birthday. He was waiting for the auctioneer’s hammer to finalize the sale, and its consequences.
The drama plays out in vivid detail in The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, a new nonfiction book that explores the mysterious world of fossil dealing. The book, which hit shelves last month, chronicles Prokopi’s path from fossil collecting in Florida, to Mongolia, and finally, to prison. And the whole thing begins with Prokopi pacing that beach. “Everything unraveled from that point,” says Paige Williams, the book’s author and a staff writer at The New Yorker. “So it seemed like the right starting point.”
The Dinosaur Artist goes beyond the case of the poached dinosaur: at its core is this friction between commercial fossil collectors like Prokopi who buy and sell ancient bones, and the scientific community that snubs them for profiting off of a finite and priceless source of knowledge. Williams weaves that conflict into a meaty epic spanning the history of paleontology and the political environment that primed Mongolia for fossil poaching. “The geopolitics, I just couldn’t get enough of it,” says Williams. “And it played into the story in a significant way, in that the dinosaur skeleton became something of a pawn.”
The Verge spoke with Williams about fossils, obsession, and a surprise discovery of dinosaur eggs.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You started telling Prokopi’s story in your 2013 New Yorker article, “Bones of Contention.” What first clued you into Prokopi’s case?
I started noodling around on it in 2009, and spent a couple years just looking for the right case, and looking for the right characters and seeing where the reporting would take me. And the reporting that I found that was based in the United States didn’t quite go far enough for me. I was interested in the broader implications of fossil hunting, and international law, and the finite resources of the planet — and those cases didn’t do all that.
I had set Google Alerts for all kinds of things, like “fossil thief,” “dinosaur poacher,” “fossil poacher” — 10 to 15 different Google alerts. And I’d forgotten about it after I’d decided I would move on, find something else to do. I still had those alerts set and one popped up that had the Prokopi case — the sale of the T. bataar at auction in New York City. And I thought, “Oh, lord, I am so done with this.” But, when I looked at it, it was very clear it was a good story and it suggested something larger about the world of paleontology, and collecting, and of science that people may not think needs to be protected but obviously, in many respects, does.
When did you know it was bigger than an article, and needed to become a book?
I didn’t pitch this as a book after the story ran in January of 2013. And it wasn’t until the summer of 2014 that I was convinced that it was a book because Prokopi was sentenced to prison, which was unexpected. Even people who wanted to see him punished, but didn’t especially want to see him go to prison, were surprised that he got prison time. So, at that point I thought this is worth pursuing as a longer work.
The auction scenes — with the lawyer trying to stop the sale in New York, and Prokopi pacing that Florida beach during his daughter’s birthday — had such detailed dialogue and scenery descriptions that it felt like you were there … were you?
Video — the answer was video. The lawyer, Robert Painter, had a staffer from his law firm who was videoing everything. He just did it as evidence because he’s a good lawyer. He happened to mention it and I was like, “Oh god, please let me see that video.” That video is everything because it had all of the dialogue, all of the audio, all of the detail. Any time I can get audio, video, of anything, I prefer that to human memory because human memory is fallible and it’s subjective.
The beach scene was interviews, and I asked for every photograph that exists of that day — so it was like a forensic examination of every photograph related to that moment. I don’t know any other way to do it, really — and that’s probably why it took so long.
You traveled a lot for this book — what was the most unexpected place you found yourself?
The Gobi Desert. What I didn’t expect, but perhaps should have, was the feeling that would come along with it. It can make you feel like the last human on Earth. There is nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing there. And it’s so massive and so untouched. It connects you to deep time in a way that I had not expected. It puts things in perspective. You, this little human speck on the grand scale of time, here you are standing in this place where all these other explorers and scientists stood before you and where these strange and ferocious and wonderful animals lived so many tens of millions of years ago. And there they are at your feet.
When I was at the Gobi Desert, when I was at the Flaming Cliffs, there was an American couple there. They were hiking around and found some dinosaur eggs. It couldn’t have been more like, “Are you kidding me? Somebody just happened across dinosaur eggs in this remote place?” If they had been with my party, I would have thought, “Who set this up? This is a plant.” But they were there independent of anybody else. These weren’t ordinary tourists, these were scientists who happened to be out hiking for the pleasure of being somewhere so remote, and so unusually beautiful, and they happened to come across important scientific materials.
One of the main themes of the book is this science fight between these two groups of people who love bones: the commercial hunters, and the paleontologists. What’s going on there?
If you Venn diagram this entire thing, the center of that diagram would be fossils. They both love fossils — they are fascinated by them, they want to study them. The amateur hunters and the independent and commercial hunters aren’t all venal, money-grubbing opportunists. A lot of them are drawn to paleontology and to fossils because they sincerely do want to know about the history of life on Earth and because they find it fascinating to live in that world. Paleontology wouldn’t exist without people who walked around, looking at natural history and fossils in particular and wondering what made this, where does this come from, what forces of nature caused this to exist in my hand right now.
Once the science became more formalized, then there came this tension [about] who has a right to collect these things. Who has a right to study them? Who has a right to interpret them within the context of the history of the planet? And scientists rightly worry that if fossils aren’t protected that they’ll have nothing to study. So there simply has to be some sort of mechanism for protecting the most valuable scientific objects, and the only scientific objects that tell the story about life on Earth. And on the commercial side, they bristle at the idea that anybody gets to say who has a right to objects found on Earth. They believe that they have an important role to play and many, if not most of them, acknowledge that laws have to be followed and that some laws do make sense, but a lot of them feel like there’s this unnecessary attempt to keep them out of a world where they feel they belong.
There didn’t seem to be a moral to the story. You didn’t come down saying that the semi-regulated fossil market needs to end, or that only scientists need to be in charge. Was there a take-home point that you wanted to drive home?
I’ve always believed as a journalist that it is my job to lay everything out and let the reader decide what to believe in. I don’t think that this is a black-and-white situation. I think even the paleontologists see, even if they have trouble acknowledging, the contributions that amateur hunters, or independent hunters have made to the science, to natural history museums, to society, to the culture that they’re working in. And the independent hunters often feel dismissed by science. There’s some bridging to be done there, but no one’s figured out how to do it yet.
The takeaway is that this is not a subculture that you see all around you. The people who are obsessed with fossils, you don’t just see them walking down the street. But they are legion and they are on every continent, and they are as obsessed a group of people as I’ve ever met in my life, and that was surprising. I just had never been around fossil-hunters, or collectors, or paleontologists, or anyone from that world. And the depth of their passion amazed me.