Where the line between a natural science enthusiast and a smuggler blur

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Where the line between a natural science enthusiast and a smuggler blur

    The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy by Paige Williams, Hachette Books, US $28.00,     Pp 410, ISBN 978-0316382533

The 2012 New York auction catalog carried an unusually amazing offering for sale — a Tyrannosaurus skeleton. It was actually nearly complete T. bataar, a close cousin of dinosaurs. The eight-feet high and 24 feet long fossils had been discovered in Mongolia — nearly 6,000 miles away from New York. It was sold for more than $1 million. Thirty-eight-year-old Eric Prokopi from Florida had brought this skeleton to market. As the T. bataar went to auction, the government of Mongolia was alerted about this sale through a network of paleontologists, which led to an international custody battle. The world of Prokopi started unraveling. In The Dinosaur Artist, Paige Williams tells the story of Tyrannosaurus skeleton, its sale and Eric Prokopi who had discovered it in Mongolia and brought it to New York for sale. Paige Williams says, as a teenager, Pokopi used to dive deep in the sea for shark teeth. Eric Prokopi’s obsession with fossils helped him set up a thriving business of hunting, preparing and selling specimens, to clients from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Paige Williams says that after selling two enormous Tyrannosaurid skulls back to back, he put a whole skeleton on offer in Manhattan, expected to fetch millions of dollars through Heritage Auctions, a company based in Dallas. Fossils are found in every part of the world, and so are fossil collectors, who are legion. Collectors spend significant chunks of their lives hunting for fossils, researching fossils, buying fossils, displaying fossils, trading fossils, visiting fossils in museums, and talking about them. Fossil enthusiasts are as obsessed a segment of natural history lovers as ever existed. Paige Williams says that, as the only record of life on Earth, fossils hold the key to understanding the history of the planet and its potential future. Studying them, scientists can better monitor pressing issues such as mass extinction and climate change; hunting, collecting, or viewing them, anyone may feel connected to both the universe’s infinite mystery and Earth’s tangible past.

Paige tells us Eric hunted, restored, bought, and sold the remains of prehistoric creatures, mostly shark teeth and Ice Age mammals like giant ground sloths. Several times a year he hosted a sales booth at the world’s largest natural history shows — Tucson, Denver, Munich — and also attended ones like Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France. Otherwise, he sold fossils by email blast and on eBay, or to private clients. Paige says, recently, the trade had opened up in a way that natural history dealers found promising and paleontologists found troubling. Venerable fine art auction houses now offered fossils with the kind of upscale presentation afforded old master paintings or Chippendale desks. Paige says that the auctions often attracted overseas museums as buyers, along with private collectors who realized they could own the kind of specimens found in institutions like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., or the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A collector with enough disposable income and square footage could more or less start his or her own museum.

The most popular collectibles were the ones you could put on a shelf as a conversation piece, like meteorites and mammal skulls. Paige says that dinosaurs transcended everything, though. Dinosaurs fascinated children and adults alike for their size and variety alone: fleet deadly winged carnivores capable of taking down beasts twice their size; peace-loving, plant-eating behemoths; apex predators that ravaged their way to the top of the food chain. Dinosaurs claimed universal name recognition. Tyrannosaurus rex is the one species whose name everyone gets right, the vertebrate paleontologist Thomas Holtz likes to say, Dinosaurs symbolized both catastrophic death and robust life: by human standards, they were far more successful. Dinosaurs dominated the Earth for 166 million years, fell to a mass die-off, then enjoyed a cultural come-back — 66 million years later.

The Dinosaur Artist is the story of a fossil-collector — obsessed with natural history since his childhood — who was caught between science, commerce, and crime. It is equally a story of mankind’s obsession with natural history that is spread all over the globe. Paige Williams has chronicled the history of fossil collecting and shown that there is a thin line between a hunter and a poacher or between a smuggler and a collector. This well-researched book is an amazing piece of investigative journalism that includes everything from natural history to science to politics to crime. This true story reads like a true thrilling crime story. You will not be able to easily put it down before finishing it.

Note: This review was originally posted on November 10, 2018, but had to be re-posted for technical reasons.

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