Natural History, Artists & Detectives

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This Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur was at the center of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia. Credit U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York

97803163825331.jpgMammoth-hunting is the closest anyone in our immediate circle has gotten to the kind of story that is on my mind today. Searching the word dinosaur on our platform I see that the story told in the book to the left has had a long trail that I have been following for years. If like me you had youthful dreams of becoming a hunter for pre-history’s wonders you might have thrown around phrases such as “whatever it takes.”

This cautionary tale by Paige Williams might be the antidote for any kid whose instincts are for this kind of sleuthing adventure, which requires rules just like any good game. Speaking of which, longform tale-telling is as much an interest of mine as natural history, and the way this book came to my attention was through an interview with its author.

The Bizarre Tale of the ‘Dinosaur Artist’ Who Trafficked in Stolen Fossils

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John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times

As far as case law goes, there are more consequential decisions than The United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar SkeletonFew, however, feature a more charismatic defendant.

In 2013, the United States literally arrested the skeleton of a giant apex predator dinosaur slumbering in a warehouse in Queens. But understanding how this came to be first requires a panoptic survey of everything from the world of the Late Cretaceous period to the 1990s rise of right-wing politics in Mongolia. This is the dizzying task that Paige Williams, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has set for herself in “The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy.”

What began for her as the tale of an unusual court case involving a rogue fossil hunter unspools in this book into a wide-ranging examination of the ways that commercialism, ambition, politics and science collide. (Just a glance at some of the index’s entries reveals the scope: Genghis Khan, Newt Gingrich, St. Augustine, Stegosaurus and Preet Bharara.)

When this “big, sexy” — and, to paleontologists, obviously illegal — dinosaur appears on the auction block in New York City, commercial and academic worlds alike are aghast. Simply put, the dinosaur is from Mongolia and you can’t sell dinosaurs from Mongolia. Behind the stolen bones is Eric Prokopiwho overnight becomes “either the bravest or most reckless son of a bitch” other fossil dealers had ever seen. The life of a globe-trotting dinosaur smuggler might bring to mind Thomas Crown meets Tintin, but one of the revelations of the book is just how mundane the skulduggery of Prokopi’s crime actually was. He simply went to trade shows, saw who was dealing hot fossils in the open and made contacts. After repeated jaunts across the world to meet with an extremely shady (and often extremely drunken) Mongolian middleman, Prokopi establishes a pipeline for his purloined paleontological finds. As a reader, being given entry by Williams into this underworld, privy to the secret knowledge of a black market, is a thrill.

As Prokopi’s financial situation becomes increasingly tenuous, these dinosaur bones become his only hope for avoiding ruin. “A batch of dinosaurs would put everything straight,” Williams writes at one point, as the noose tightens. It’s hard not to feel for Prokopi, who ultimately ends up in prison for his smuggling. The only crime that would seem to separate him from the other dealers who had long peddled hot bones in the open at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society, and elsewhere, is sheer audacity — that is, flying too close to the sun on the pathetic, undersize forearms of T. bataar.

The strange underground world Prokopi inhabits inevitably brings us in contact with some serious oddballs, each of whom is introduced by Williams with the economy and evocative precision of a haiku. In affectless, purposeful prose we get a stream of increasingly strange and piquant factoids about these people, who seem to emerge straight out of a Coen brothers movie: One fossil dealer likes cockroaches, Milton Friedman and Greek triremes. Prokopi’s mother is a nudist, while his mentor is a former door-to-door crab salesman who once won a soap-selling contest. The father of a character introduced in the epilogue has a “love affair” with a bottlenose dolphin — although, by that point in the book, nothing would seem eccentric enough to warrant surprise. All of this is presented from a narrative God’s-eye view, and Williams so skillfully conceals the sausage-making of reporting that when we’re told, for instance, what someone was thinking while urinating in the desert in the middle of the night several years ago, we accept it as truth…

Read the whole review here.

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