Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I love dinosaurs, so when I received a copy of The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, by Paige Williams, I was ecstatic. This book contained so many things that I like: dinosaurs, journalism, natural and political history; how could I not read it?
This book evolved from an article that Paige wrote for The New Yorker, titled “Bones of Contention,” which was published in 2013. It told the story of Eric Prokopi, and his Tarbosaurus (T. bataar) skeleton that swept the media by storm. Why? Because he tried to sell it at an auction in the USA, only to have the Mongolian government demand it back.
Confused? I was too, until I read The Dinosaur Artist. Let’s take a couple steps back.
A few months ago a friend of mine was showing me wedding bands made of dinosaur bones. I thought they were super cool, and was ready to just buy one for myself because why the hell not, but then I asked him, “where do you think they get the dinosaur bones from?”
At the time neither of us knew, but I now have a much better understanding.
The Dinosaur Artist tells an incredibly compelling story about a niche black market: fossils.
I don’t know why I never thought of this before, but it makes sense that anyone can walk around outside, find a fossil on the ground, pick it up, bring it home, clean it, and then sell it either privately or publicly to make a profit. That’s exactly what Eric Prokopi did for years, until his infamous T. bataar skeleton went up for sale.
Paige did a deep-dive into this case, tore it apart, and put it back together again. Her narrative explains how Eric got into fossil hunting, and how he was able to make a living from it. She also explores the history of palaeontology, and the fine line between professional scientists and amateur fossil hunters (the latter making numerous discoveries, which have helped museums and researchers push forward in their respective fields).
One of the main questions posed throughout this book is “who owns natural history?” This question may seem tricky; as I mentioned, if you find a fossil on the ground, what’s stopping you from keeping it?
Well, a lot of laws are. Eric didn’t know this when he was in Mongolia, but the Mongolian government considers everything on or under the ground as belonging to the country. So finding fossils and bringing them back to the USA is illegal. However, at the time, there were very few regulations in place to police this.
As a result, numerous Mongolian fossils were brought out of the country and sold. This stopped, though, after Eric’s case. As a result of the case “law enforcement now had more insight into the illicit fossil trade.”
In fact, when Mongolia began repatriating fossils, private collectors (including Nicholas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio) had to give up pieces of their collections. For real, I looked it up after finishing the book.
The Dinosaur Artist is more than just awesome dinosaur stories and facts; it’s about scientific discoveries, international law, history, and that sense of curiosity that lives inside us all. When I first saw this book, I knew I had to read it, and I absolutely loved it.
There is one line that has stuck with me that I wanted to share: “We will never finish learning all there is to know about Earth . . . humans are forever finding fossils that help tell that story.”
Hold on to your butts, because The Dinosaur Artist hits shelves this September, and you won’t want to miss it.
Thank you to the publisher for an electronic ARC of this book via NetGalley.