Weird Businesses, Natural History Edition

Eric Prokopi, of Gainesville, in the five-thousand-square-foot fossil workshop that he built in his back yard. Photograph by Richard Barnes.

Eric Prokopi, of Gainesville, in the five-thousand-square-foot fossil workshop that he built in his back yard. Photograph by Richard Barnes.

I am not sure what to make of this.  Is it entrepreneurial conservation from a different angle? This story, in character with the New Yorker‘s brand of long form journalism, tells a remarkably odd story in must-read fashion:

Natural history goes to auction five or six times a year in America, and one Sunday last May a big sale took place in Chelsea, at the onetime home of the Dia Center for the Arts. The bidding, organized by a company called Heritage Auctions, began with two amethyst geodes that, when paired, resembled the ears of an alert rabbit. Then came meteorites, petrified wood, and elephant tusks; centipedes, scorpions, and spiders preserved in amber; rare quartzes, crystals, and fossils. The fossils ranged from small Eocene swimmers imprinted on rock to the remains of late-Cretaceous dinosaurs.

That day, the articulated toe and claw of a Moroccan dinosaur sold for sixty-three hundred dollars. A tyrannosaur tooth—ten and a half inches from root to spike—went for nearly forty thousand.

Along one wall, behind ropes, loomed the skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataarT. bataar, as it is known, was a Tyrannosaurus rex cousin that lived some seventy million years ago, in what is now the Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia. Eight feet tall and twenty-four feet long, the specimen had been mounted in a predatory running position, with its arms out and its jaws open, as if determined to eat Lot No. 49220—a cast Komodo dragon, crouching ten yards away, on blue velvet.

After a German sea-lily fossil sold to a live bidder, for forty thousand dollars, Greg Rohan, Heritage’s president, who had been standing near the lectern, handed the auctioneer a note. The auctioneer announced, “The sale of this next lot will be contingent upon a satisfactory resolution of a court proceeding.” He was talking about the dinosaur, which he called the auction’s “signature item.” Largely intact dinosaur skeletons are not easily found, and this specimen had been advertised as seventy-five per cent complete. “It can fit in all rooms ten feet high,” the auctioneer added. “So it’s also a great decorative piece.”

As the bidding opened, at eight hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, Robert Painter, an attorney from Houston, stood up, a BlackBerry in his hand. Painter is six feet three and forty-two, with dark hair, rimless eyeglasses, and a deep voice. “I hate to interrupt this,” he told the room. “But I have the judge on the phone.” The previous day, Carlos Cortez—a state district judge in Dallas, where Heritage has its headquarters—had signed a temporary restraining order forbidding the company to auction the T. bataar, on the ground that the dinosaur was believed to have been stolen from Mongolia. The judge, defied, was not pleased.

The auction had come to the attention of the Mongolian government the preceding Friday, after Bolortsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist who lives in New York, saw a television report about the auction and suspected that the dinosaur had been taken from her country. Bolor, as she is called, discovered that the online auction catalogue listed the item’s provenance as “Central Asia”—a vague term often considered code for Mongolia and China, both of which forbid the commercial export of fossils found within their borders. Other catalogue items, such as the tyrannosaur tooth, openly referred to the Nemegt Formation, a fossil-rich expanse of sandstone and mudstone in the Mongolian Gobi.

Read the rest of the story here.

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