New Yorker magazine staff writer Paige Williams delves into the surprisingly perilous world of fossil collectors in this riveting true tale.
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 more-famous T. rex - that had been unearthed in Mongolia. At 2.4 metres high and 7.3 metres long, the specimen was spectacular, and the winning bid was over $1 million.
Eric Prokopi, a 38-year-old Floridian, had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A one-time swimmer who'd spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi's singular obsession with fossils fuelled a thriving business, hunting for, preparing, and selling specimens to clients ranging from natural-history museums to avid private collectors like Leonardo DiCaprio.
But had Prokopi gone too far this time? 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, with Prokopi watching as his own world unravelled.
The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history, and about 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, and enthusiast and opportunist can easily blur.
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.