The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy
by Paige Williams (Hachette, $28)
You don’t often come across a court case in which a dead dinosaur is the defendant, said Peter Brannen in The New York Times. How the fossilized skeleton of a 70 million–year-old Tarbosaurus bataar wound up in such a jam is a complex tale, but author Paige Williams proves more than up to “the dizzying task” of telling it. Expanding on a 2013 New Yorker feature she wrote about the case, she has dug deeper into recent Mongolian history, 19th-century paleontology, and Late Cretaceous ecology. The result is a true-crime page-turner that’s also “a wide-ranging examination of the ways that commercialism, ambition, politics, and science collide.”
So many historical figures get mentions along the way that they “leave Williams’ narrative feeling padded,” said Richard Conniff in The Wall Street Journal. “But the story, when she sticks to it, is gripping and cinematic.” In 2010, fossil dealer Eric Prokopi acquired the T. bataar skeleton in pieces, sent to him in three intentionally mislabeled crates. Prokopi spent 18 months assembling and polishing the skeleton in his Florida backyard before contacting a collectibles auction house. But word reached government officials in Mongolia, which bars the sale of such fossils, and an injunction was issued shortly after the skeleton sold at auction for $1.05 million. Prokopi unwisely contested the action, triggering an investigation. In late 2012, he pleaded guilty to felony smuggling charges.
As The Dinosaur Artist neared its close, “I felt conflicting sympathies,” said Will Gordon in Outside. Mongolia’s complaints were rooted in a long history of exploitation by the West, and “at times Prokopi seemed like an oblivious casualty of a political debacle.” But though he entered the business as a fossil enthusiast, he had by 2010 abandoned any ethical standards, and it was for money, not love, that he acquired the T. bataar. The whistleblower in the case, a Mongolian paleontologist, had obviously been bitten by the dinosaur bug herself. In the end, what we have here is “a story about people living out their passions, for better or for worse.” ■