Editor’s Note: Paige Williams, author of “The Dinosaur Artist,” will read and sign copies of her book “The Dinosaur Artist” on Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 5 p.m., at Off-Square Books.
This is a scintillating book on an offbeat topic: a heist story about dinosaurs.
Eric Prokopi, whose picaresque story Paige Williams tells in “The Dinosaur Artist,” is a Florida native, a “commercial paleontologist.” As a teenager, Prokopi hunted fossil shark teeth and cleaned modern shark jaws from fishing tournaments. He kept hunting, he moved into prepping (cleaning and restoring and mounting specimens), and “as his inventory grew, he took his stone zoo to market.”
In 2007, Prokopi began prepping bigger game – specimens of Tarbosaurus bataar, a Gobi Desert cousin of Tyrannoraurus rex. He sold two T. bataar skulls, one to Nicholas Cage and another to Leonardo DiCaprio, bringing in about half a million dollars.
Entangled in Florida real estate, fighting to make his name in fossil dealing, Prokopi decided to score a bigger coup: to acquire a T. bataar skeleton. It was a gamble that began with a 7,000-mile flight to Chinggis Khan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, stretched into the freezing dust of the Gobi, and ended in federal prison.
A T. bataar skeleton is by definition a fossil from Mongolia. On their circuitous, eventful route to Florida, the bones that Prokopi planned to sell for a million dollars had been described as originating in Great Britain, valued at a mere $15,000, and described as “2 large rough (unprepared) fossil reptile heads . . . an attempt to circumvent calling the fossils what they were: the remains of a Cretaceous dinosaur.”
The Mongolian government protested; Homeland Security Agents intervened; the late-night Internet flamed up like a mob bearing torches. Prokopi pleaded guilty and found that the other convicts nicknamed him “Indiana.” When the hearings were over, the T. bataar skeleton was flown home in triumph. It is the centerpiece of the new Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs.
Behind Prokopi’s story, Williams sketches a brilliant mosaic history of the history of fossil-hunting. She brings in Mary Anning, who was hunting ichthyosaurs in English sea-cliffs in the same years that Jane Austen was writing novels; Roy Chapman Andrews, who led Jazz Age expeditions into the Gobi and brought home the fabled dinosaur eggs that still wow visitors to the American Museum of Natural History; and the keen-eyed rough-and-ready bone hunters of modern-day fossil clubs, who pick their way through Florida quarries and Wyoming buttes (“Fossil hunting had led one to quit ‘riding the couch all day on Sunday, watching NASCAR’”).
A native of Tupelo, Paige Williams is a staff writer for The New Yorker. “The Dinosaur Artist,” her first book, honors that magazine’s reputation for scrupulous reporting and lively writing. Summing up the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show, Williams comments: “Even if you stayed the whole two weeks, it would be impossible to fully absorb the Tucson experience, though with the right questions and contacts it was possible to learn who had the nice lapiz lazuli, and which guy to see about a dinosaur.” A.J. Liebling might have envied the punch of that sentence.
“THE DINOSAUR ARTIST: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy,” by Paige Williams. Hachette Books, 410 pages, $28.00.
Allen Boyer is the Book Editor of HottyToddy.com. A native of Oxford, he lives and writes on Staten Island. His most recent book is “Rocky Boyer’s War” (Naval Institute Press).