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“The Dinosaur Artist” Review: Bad Boy Makes Old Bones Big Business

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2018

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

On a Thursday afternoon in May 2012, a paleontologist named Bolortsetseg Minjin was having lunch near the American Museum of Natural History in New York when she heard a news broadcast about a spectacular dinosaur being put up for auction. It was a specimen of Tarbosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old close kin and look-alike of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Heritage Auctions, which bills itself as “the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer,” had it splashed across the centerfold of its sale catalog. In midstride, with the mouth on the 4-foot-long skull gaping to show its spiky teeth, and its counterbalancing tail stretched out behind, Lot 49135 stood 8 feet tall and 24 feet long. The auction would take place that Sunday afternoon, just three days off, at a converted warehouse a short subway ride south of the museum. The estimate was that it would sell for $950,000 to $1.5 million. There was only one hitch: T. bataar specimens come from the fossil mother lode of the Gobi Desert, and the sale of fossils from Mongolia is by definition illegal.

Ms. Minjin, though living in the U.S. and married to an American, was also a product of Mongolia, raised in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the child of a paleontologist at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology. “For years, she had been trying to raise awareness in her country and beyond of the importance of Gobi fossils,” Paige Williams writes in “The Dinosaur Artist.” It bothered her that “Mongolian paleontologists ceded too much authority to foreign scientists who had built their careers on Gobi fossils and given too little in return.” Even worse, the surging international demand for fossils as decorative objects had encouraged local fossil poachers and an international network of buyers to treat the Gobi as their treasure chest.

Unlike legitimate commercial fossil hunters, who often collaborate with museum paleontologists, poachers almost invariably destroy valuable scientific evidence about the context of the specimens they find. They like to say that most fossils would otherwise erode away to nothing as they weather out of remote and inaccessible hillsides. But that hardly justifies the damage they do. Ms. Minjin fired off an email to a friend in Ulaanbaatar who was an assistant to the then-president of Mongolia. It reached Oyungerel Tsedevdamba as she was getting ready for work Friday morning. “You’re talking to me about dinosaurs?” the president asked her, incredulously. But Ms. Tsedevdamba was soon on the phone arranging for a Texas lawyer named Robert Painter to obtain a court injunction to block the sale of the T. bataar on Mongolia’s behalf.

The man who brought Tarbosaurus bataar to auction—and the main subject of Ms. Williams’s book—was a Florida fossil dealer, then in his late 30s, named Eric Prokopi. Ms. Williams first encountered him while researching a New Yorker profile in 2013 and has dug deep in the years since.

Prokopi with wife, kids, and family friend

Prokopi started out as a child collecting fossil shark’s teeth on the beach and soon advanced into a full-blown adolescent obsession with paleontology. In college, he volunteered at the Florida Museum of Natural History. But he soon fell out with the scientists there after collecting at a quarry that had banned fossil hunting, and it seemed to set the pattern for everything that followed. Fossils were “just basically rocks,” Prokopi rationalized. “It’s not like antiquities, where it’s somebody’s heritage and culture and all that.”

Prokopi began to make a living less like the “dinosaur artist” of the book’s title and more like a shrewd huckster dealing in shark’s teeth, sunken cypress logs recovered from river bottoms, renovated houses and ultimately—because that’s where the money was—big dinosaurs. Fossils from Mongolia and China, both illegal, became his specialty. In 2007, he sold a T. bataar skull at an auction where two rival bidders drove the final price up to $276,000. The winner, Ms. Williams reports, was the Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage, and the underbidder was Leonardo DiCaprio, who soon placed an order with Prokopi for his own T. bataar.

Prokopi no doubt wanted to believe his rationalization about fossils being “just basically rocks.” But a more accurate way to phrase his approach to the business might have been, “Everybody else was doing it, too.” Ms. Williams quotes a headline from the leading science journal Nature blasting another journal for featuring a new dinosaur from Mongolia sold by a commercial dealer: “Paper Sparks Fossil Fury: Paleontologists Criticize Publication of Specimen With Questionable Origin.” She doesn’t point out, however, that such papers describing new species also routinely appear in Nature itself, as well as in Science and other journals, written by legitimate scientists but based on specimens that have almost certainly been collected illegally by poachers in China. (One key difference: Those specimens at least end up in museums and are available to other researchers.) The combination of limited funding for academic fieldwork, spectacular new discoveries, complicated foreign laws and widespread political corruption continues to set up a thorny trap even for the most scrupulous scientists.

Prokopi wasn’t one of them, however. Among other damning details, Ms. Williams depicts Prokopi spray-painting a bicycle black to facilitate nighttime raids on a private quarry, breaking into abandoned houses to salvage architectural details, and filing false documents to conceal the origin and value of imported specimens. On the personal side, he and his wife and two kids were living without savings or health insurance, according to Ms. Williams, but in a pricey house and with high-end vehicles and, for Eric Prokopi, an extramarital affair, all supported by a mountain of debt—a way of life that made big scores a matter of survival.

Ms. Williams’s writing is often concise and evocative. Of Prokopi, as his world is falling apart, she writes: “His eyes, brown as acorns, were bracketed by deepening crow’s-feet. His right eye had developed an inflamed twitch. His dark hair sprouted silver like crabgrass after a dense rain.” But at other times, weirdly, she can also sound like a cowboy poet during open-mic night at the Yippee-Ki-Yay Saloon: “In Old West Tampa, there lived a son of New York named Frank Garcia.” Or: “With that, Eric stepped into something he in no way foresaw, and hand to God it started with Genghis Khan.”

Maybe it’s a passing infection from the colorful people she meets in the dinosaur world. But those characters also leave Ms. Williams’s narrative feeling padded, even at 278 pages. The pioneering work of fossil hunter Mary Anning (1800-47) has been abundantly celebrated in recent years, for instance, and it’s not clear how another potted biography here advances the story. Mr. Williams’s 89 pages of endnotes, including a lengthy account of the death of Pliny the Elder in A.D. 79, are also symptomatic of runaway research.

But the story, when she sticks to it, is gripping and cinematic. The Texas lawyer Robert Painter, tied to Mongolia by mining interests and a kind of missionary movement for right-wing American political values, quickly wins his court injunction to block the T. bataar sale. When the auction house decides to proceed regardless, he jumps on a plane to New York. That Sunday afternoon, just after the auctioneer introduces Lot 49135, saying, “It can fit in all rooms ten feet high, so it’s also a great decorative piece,” Mr. Painter rises, holding his BlackBerry up with an angry Texas judge on the other end of the line, and says, “I hate to interrupt this . . . ” The bidders, undiscouraged, take the final price to $1,052,500, “contingent,” in the auctioneer’s phrase, “upon a satisfactory resolution of a court proceeding.”

And the resolution is indeed satisfying. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York promptly issues a warrant for the T. bataar, backs up a truck to a Heritage Auctions warehouse and hauls away the dinosaur. Imprudently, Prokopi fights the forfeiture and, according to Ms. Williams, continues trying to sell his other specimens from Mongolia on the side. Facing criminal charges, he hides his passport under the house and leaves his cellphone at home to minimize the danger of being traced. Agents from the Department of Homeland Security find him anyway and haul him off in handcuffs. A plea bargain and an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors ultimately gets him a short term in a medium-security prison, generously timed so that he can spend the summer with his kids.

Ms. Williams leaves lots of tantalizing loose ends. For instance: Why would a man purporting to be “Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur advisor” working “closely with the Mongolian government” attempt to broker a deal immediately after the auction, as Ms. Williams puts it, to “resolve the T. bataar situation quietly”? After the mysterious death of Prokopi’s main supplier in Mongolia, and two of his supplier’s associates, is there anything to one observer’s speculation that a rich financier there is getting rid of witnesses? And does she buy Prokopi’s implication that U.S. federal authorities prosecuted him mainly to encourage “friendly relations” with Mongolia at a time when U.S. companies were hoping to win mining contracts there? She presents no evidence for it.

The case has at least caused other fossil dealers and auction houses, and perhaps Prokopi himself, to get the message about the need to obtain valid permits before trading in any specimen. The selling of fossils from Mongolia and China has gone underground.

The most satisfying part of the story is that at least 20 major fossils from Mongolia have since been confiscated from U.S. buyers (including Nicolas Cage but not Leonardo DiCaprio, who, Prokopi heard, had already traded up for a better specimen). They are now back home in Mongolia. Better still, the two women who kicked off the investigation—the paleontologist Ms. Minjin and her friend Ms. Tsedevdamba, who had become minister of culture, sports and tourism—personally managed the triumphant return of Prokopi’s Tarbosaurus bataar, in a hugely popular pop-up exhibit in Ulaanbaatar’s central square, unleashing a national bout of what Ms. Williams calls “Tarbomania.” Lot 49135 is now the star attraction of the city’s new (but of course chronically underfunded) Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs.

##

Mr. Conniff is the author of, among other books, “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth” and “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties and the Story of Life on Earth.

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One Response to ““The Dinosaur Artist” Review: Bad Boy Makes Old Bones Big Business”

  1. A book to seek out. Thank you.

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