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A riveting tale of a smuggled dinosaur illuminates an enduring tension in paleontology

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy

Paige Williams
Hachette Books
2018
432 pp.
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When a dinosaur is named as a defendant in a court case, it is all but ensured that headlines will follow. So it was in 2013, when the U.S. government sought to seize a smuggled dinosaur skeleton in a case entitled United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton. In The Dinosaur Artist, journalist Paige Williams tells the story of Eric Prokopi—the man who purchased, prepared, and attempted to sell the Tarbosaurus in question—and reveals how the skeleton made its way out of, and ultimately back to, Mongolia. Throughout the book, she folds together multiple stories to illuminate the history of fossil hunting, revealing how fossils wind up as precious objects of national and cultural heritage or coveted collector’s items.

Tarbosaurus baatar was a close relative of Tyrannosaurus rex that roamed the humid floodplains of Mongolia during the Late Cretaceous, toward the end of the age of dinosaurs. Some Tarbosaurus skeletons have been excavated by teams of paleontologists and can be found in museums, where they are used for research and public display. Others enter a not-so-secret underground trade in fossils illegally exported from Central Asia and are sold piecemeal at gem and mineral shows, on eBay, or through private dealers.

Fossils sold to private hands are effectively lost to science. Specimens in the public trust, such as accredited museums, can be examined over and over again by paleontologists now and in the future; private collections do not have the same mandates to care for fossils in perpetuity. For this reason, many countries, including Mongolia, make it illegal to excavate or export scientifically important fossils without a permit.

Prokopi built a living by selling fossils he scoured from beaches and waterways in Florida, starting when he was just a teenager. The Tarbosaurus was his biggest acquisition yet, shipped to America via a dealer based in England in crates labeled “broken fossil bones” and “fossil reptiles.” After more than a year of work cleaning the bones and fabricating an armature to mount them together, the skeleton went up for auction in 2011. When the Mongolian government raised concerns over the sale of the skeleton, it kickstarted a multiyear investigation that would ultimately see the Tarbosaurus seized and returned to Ulaanbaatar. Prokopi would lose his house and face time in jail for smuggling fossils.

I must admit that I came away from The Dinosaur Artist with respect for Prokopi’s passion for fossils, if not for his methods. In a world where full-time positions for academic paleontologists are extremely rare, and where obtaining such a position requires that one have the time and money to pursue a graduate degree, he forged his own path.

The Dinosaur Artist puts into stark relief the way wealth, privilege, and nationality shape who gets to participate in paleontology and reveals how shifting norms complicate the legacy of revered paleontologists of the past. Mary Anning, a 19th-century English fossil hunter who struggled to be taken seriously as a contributor to science (despite making numerous important discoveries), is now lauded as an unsung hero of our discipline, for example. But, as Williams reveals, she also sold her fossils to make a living. Similarly, Roy Chapman Andrews, who led the first American paleontological expedition to Mongolia, inspired many of today’s prominent paleontologists. But, like Anning, he also sold some of his finds.

Mongolian fossils have contributed greatly to our understanding of dinosaur evolution; however, most have been excavated by foreign teams of paleontologists who receive the credit and fame for these discoveries. As such, the tale of the smuggled Tarbosaurus raises some uncomfortable questions for academic paleontologists, who, like myself, take part in foreign expeditions. Are our efforts just another form of western colonialism? Have those of us who study Mongolian fossils truly done all we can to help grow capacity for research and public engagement within that country?

BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The smuggled Tarbosaurus was eventually returned to Mongolia.

Although the heart of Williams’s tale is Prokopi’s story, I found inspiration in Mongolian paleontologist Bolor Minjin’s quest to bring the Tarbosaurus home and to reboot paleontological research and education in her home country. She raised the alarm over the sale of the Tarbosaurus and, with the nonprofit Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs that she founded, has helped repatriate numerous Mongolian skeletons that had been smuggled out of the country. Each summer, she leads a team that travels across the Mongolian countryside in a 40-foot mobile museum, bringing dinosaurs directly to her fellow Mongolians. But the resources for building education and research from the ground up in Mongolia pale in comparison with the sums involved in the sale of smuggled dinosaurs, and Minjin faces a constant uphill battle.

Ultimately, The Dinosaur Artist is a compelling, nuanced look at the surprisingly complex politics that surround fossil collecting. It should be required reading for both professional paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts and is a gripping read for anyone interested in the interplay between culture, history, and science.

About the author

The reviewer is curator of paleontology, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC, Canada.