The Dinosaur Artist

Paige Williams

The Dinosaur Artist
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The Dinosaur Artist

Paige Williams

New Yorker magazine staff writer Paige Williams delves into the surprisingly perilous world of fossil collectors in this riveting true tale.

In 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: ‘a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton'. In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar - a close cousin to the more-famous T. rex - that had been unearthed in Mongolia. At 2.4 metres high and 7.3 metres long, the specimen was spectacular, and the winning bid was over $1 million.

Eric Prokopi, a 38-year-old Floridian, had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A one-time swimmer who’d spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi’s singular obsession with fossils fuelled a thriving business, hunting for, preparing, and selling specimens to clients ranging from natural-history museums to avid private collectors like Leonardo DiCaprio.

But had Prokopi gone too far this time? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. An international custody battle ensued, with Prokopi watching as his own world unravelled.

The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history, and about a seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. A story that stretches from Florida’s Land O' Lakes to the Gobi Desert, The Dinosaur Artist illuminates the history of fossil collecting - a murky, sometimes risky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, and enthusiast and opportunist can easily blur.  

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