The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy

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 most famous animal that ever lived. The fossils now on display in a Manhattan event space had been unearthed in Mongolia, more than 6,000 miles away. At eight-feet high and 24 feet long, the...

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Title:The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy
Author:Paige Williams
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Edition Language:English

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy Reviews

  • Katie

    As the aunt of 6 year old “future paleontologist”, I have learned a good deal about dinosaurs and fossils in the last couple years. I have been looking forward all summer to reading The Dinosaur Artist, a well-researched narrative journalistic book about the controversy surrounding a Florida man who prepared and auctioned a Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton from fossils unearthed in Mongolia. The book did not disappoint. While I learned a considerable amount about everything from fossil hunting to t

    As the aunt of 6 year old “future paleontologist”, I have learned a good deal about dinosaurs and fossils in the last couple years. I have been looking forward all summer to reading The Dinosaur Artist, a well-researched narrative journalistic book about the controversy surrounding a Florida man who prepared and auctioned a Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton from fossils unearthed in Mongolia. The book did not disappoint. While I learned a considerable amount about everything from fossil hunting to the history of Mongolia, I didn’t however come away with a clear-cut opinion about who ultimately owns the past as unearthed in fossils. It’s complicated. Amateur fossil hunters have much to contribute to our knowledge base but the scientific process and human history must also be taken in to consideration. I would have given this 5 stars but felt it got bogged down a little in the details of true crime style biography of rogue fossil artist Eric Prokopi.

    Thanks to NetGalley, Hatchette Books, and author Paige Williams for the advanced reader’s copy.

  • Lizz DiCesare

    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 Pro

    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.

    The Dinosaur Artist tells an incredibly compelling story about a niche black market: fossils.

    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 a sizeable number of discoveries, and helping 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 to belong 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 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.

    Thank you to the publisher for an electronic ARC of this book via NetGalley.

  • Bob Milne

    The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy wasn't quite the book I expected, but Paige Williams weaves an interesting exposé of the legal quagmire that is fossil collecting.

    As a dinosaur fanatic and amateur fossil hunter, I was fascinated - not to mention, a little bit terrified - by the consequences of collecting, transporting, and trafficking in fossils. It's so easy to pick up a brachiopod, a piece of horn coral, or even a trilobite, and think nothing

    The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy wasn't quite the book I expected, but Paige Williams weaves an interesting exposé of the legal quagmire that is fossil collecting.

    As a dinosaur fanatic and amateur fossil hunter, I was fascinated - not to mention, a little bit terrified - by the consequences of collecting, transporting, and trafficking in fossils. It's so easy to pick up a brachiopod, a piece of horn coral, or even a trilobite, and think nothing of the impact of that find, the potential loss of scientific value that comes in removing it from its context and setting. At the same time, it's just as easy to understand the counter-argument that, by collecting fossils, amateurs save them from erosion or destruction, and provide the world with a chance to appreciate them.

    Of course, when you look at all of that on a much larger scale - such as that of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar - it becomes a bit easier to understand why there has been so much drama around the auction and seizure of Eric Prokopi's 8-foot high, 24-foot long, million-dollar specimen. While that is the heart of the story, it drives the overall narrative than dominating it, which was both a surprise and a relief. As a human-interest figure, Prokopi is just not that compelling, and it's hard to become emotionally involved in his struggles. We can appreciate the situation, and understand the impact to his family, but I didn't find his story evoked the kind of sympathy that would have transformed him into a tragic figure.

    Where the human element comes through the strongest is in the backstories of surrounding the case, both historical and contemporary. I had no idea the fossil trade was such a massive community, full of such colorful (and, yes, criminal) characters. The history of the trade, with the establishment of Natural History collections across the world, was perhaps the most interesting part of the book, especially in the chapter devoted to Mary Anning. Her story is one that's always fascinated me, and Williams does a superb job of . . . well, presenting her in context and setting, much like a proper fossil discovery. Fast forward to contemporary times, as much as I might identify with Prokopi's passion for fossils, I found I sympathized more with the passion and patriotism of Bolor and Oyuna, with surprised me.

    Where that human element is somewhat buried, almost lost in the details, is with the criminal case itself. I was expecting that to be the focus of the book, to read about arguments and counterarguments . . . the testimony, the charges, and the deals . . . the scandal and spectacle, if you will. Instead, it's presented as a shockingly dull, matter-of-fact sequence of events, more akin to fighting a parking ticket than arguing such a landmark case. I'm glad Williams didn't attempt to artificially sensationalize it, but I'm also a bit saddened that it wasn't more of a spectacle in real life. The interplay of discovery, science, ethics, passion, and international law is something that deserves to be discussed on a much broader scale.

    The Dinosaur Artist is compellingly readable, as accessible to those with a curiosity as it is satisfying to those with a passion, and does a fair job of raising questions and highlighting issues, without trying force a conclusion upon the reader. Definitely recommended.

  • Paul

    The Dinosaur Hunter starts with controversy then maps the geography of the fossil landscape, from hunters to politics to jealousies and poachers. Williams covers the history of paleontology as well that of natural history museums. There’s even some celebrity sighting: a Cage/ DiCaprio fight over a 67-million-year-old skull of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar. The Dinosaur Artist is a memorable read with great tension over the timeless themes of the hunt, money, and greed.

    Full review can be found here:

    The Dinosaur Hunter starts with controversy then maps the geography of the fossil landscape, from hunters to politics to jealousies and poachers. Williams covers the history of paleontology as well that of natural history museums. There’s even some celebrity sighting: a Cage/ DiCaprio fight over a 67-million-year-old skull of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar. The Dinosaur Artist is a memorable read with great tension over the timeless themes of the hunt, money, and greed.

    Full review can be found here:

    All my reviews:

  • Erin

    Did you have a dinosaur phase? If you’ve ever stared at a giant dino skeleton in a museum (or uh, watched Jurassic Park) and had your imagination piqued, think about cracking open THE DINOSAUR ARTIST by Paige Williams, out today from Hachette Books.

    In telling the story of a single fossil skeleton sale which turns wildly contentious, Williams gives sympathetic voice to all the stakeholders in the fossil hunting game: museums, academics, passionate fossil aficionados, natural history buffs, commer

    Did you have a dinosaur phase? If you’ve ever stared at a giant dino skeleton in a museum (or uh, watched Jurassic Park) and had your imagination piqued, think about cracking open THE DINOSAUR ARTIST by Paige Williams, out today from Hachette Books.

    In telling the story of a single fossil skeleton sale which turns wildly contentious, Williams gives sympathetic voice to all the stakeholders in the fossil hunting game: museums, academics, passionate fossil aficionados, natural history buffs, commercial traders, and all the affected sovereign governments around the world. You’re probably aware that fossil hunting exists, but have you ever considered who these long-dead creatures actually *belong* to? Who has rights to something that is, for all intents and purposes, a piece of the earth? Are they natural resources (fairly well-regulated)? Or cultural resources (less well-regulated)? Can falling inside a man-made border constrain an object that is from a time before humans even existed?

    I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs for most of my life, but I’d never considered the complex social web that their remains exist in, and how all the threads in that web affect what we the public see, know, and learn about them. Williams does an excellent job of drawing out each of those threads for clarity, then weaving them back together in a compelling narrative that ensures you’ll never react the same way to an image of a T. Rex.

    While this book was *pretty specifically* up my alley, it’s also a broadly fascinating read. If you’re looking for some non-fiction that goes down easy and contains shades of Hollywood, crime, international intrigue, investigative reporting, and a cast of colorful real-life characters, check this sucker out. Thanks to @netgalley and @hachettebooks for the dARC!

  • Matthew Budman

    Williams is a marvelous writer of paragraphs, and even of chapters: She beautifully captures scenes and characters and issues and history, and her prose sparkles. Nearly any reader will be fascinated by the issues that

    raises. And yet the book doesn't quite hold together.

    Beginning with the title, the author seems to take

    colleague Susan Orlean's

    as a model, and a writer could do far, far worse. But Williams' central character and his story—as a fos

    Williams is a marvelous writer of paragraphs, and even of chapters: She beautifully captures scenes and characters and issues and history, and her prose sparkles. Nearly any reader will be fascinated by the issues that

    raises. And yet the book doesn't quite hold together.

    Beginning with the title, the author seems to take

    colleague Susan Orlean's

    as a model, and a writer could do far, far worse. But Williams' central character and his story—as a fossil collector and salesman who gets caught—simply isn't compelling enough to carry a book-length tale, and as a narrator she makes the decision to stay invisible, forgoing the option of actively guiding us from one scenario to the next. She makes Eric Prokopi a very real and sympathetic figure, but he and his case are too small to serve as scaffolding for a story on such a grand scale of geography and time.

    What's here—and much of it is great—is fantastic color and background, rich and detailed to the extent that they sometimes take us way off track. To cite just one example: To flesh out the reasons for decisions by the Mongolian government re: fossils, Williams presents basically the entire modern history of Mongolia, emphasizing post-Soviet political drama, and several colorful personalities. It's all compelling, and I knew none of it before, but it takes us far, far afield from the story of fossil recovery, much less issues of commercial fossil-hunting. It's almost a surprise when Prokopi—the dinosaur artist—re-enters the story.

    So: Beautiful writing and diligent research that could have used a firmer hand in shaping.

  • Greg Richardson

    This book is a true tragedy. There's an awesome story to be told and, eventually, that story is told. There's just way too much extraneous information included in this book to make it worth recommending.

    To say that it moves slowly is to say that dinosaurs lived a long time ago.

    Just when you think you're getting somewhere and that you have the necessary background to appreciate the complexities of the story, you get taken back on yet another detour.

    I wondered if I was the only one who felt this

    This book is a true tragedy. There's an awesome story to be told and, eventually, that story is told. There's just way too much extraneous information included in this book to make it worth recommending.

    To say that it moves slowly is to say that dinosaurs lived a long time ago.

    Just when you think you're getting somewhere and that you have the necessary background to appreciate the complexities of the story, you get taken back on yet another detour.

    I wondered if I was the only one who felt this way, so I poked around a few places online and found this NPR review that says it more clearly than I ever could:

    "The book does have some flaws. It's as if Williams felt compelled to include every last thing she learned through her research, even beyond the 90 dense pages of footnotes. We don't need to know that Prokopi's mother-in law decorated her home at the holidays with "dense arrangements of aromatic greenery and gilded candlesticks." Even less relevant are weight-related comments: Mongolian activist Oyuna Tsedevdamba is "youthful and slim," and auction broker David Herskowitz walks with "his belly leading."

    "More disconcertingly, whenever the Tarbosaurus narrative gathers speed, Williams dumps in a sticky web of new names and facts to keep straight. At one point of real momentum, suddenly we're sent back to 1793 and the life of an English cabinetmaker named Richard Anning. His daughter Mary Anning, a highly skilled collector of invertebrate fossils around Lyme, England, is a compelling figure from the annals of women in science — but overall there are just too many of these jarring time jumps.

    The full review is here:

    .

    Proceed at your own risk!

  • Scribe Publications

    The Dinosaur Artist

    The Dinosaur Artist

    The Dinosaur Artist

    The Dinosaur Artist

    The Dinosaur Artist

    The Dinosaur Artist

    New Yorker

    New Yorker

  • Kelly

    At times, the history of both fossil trade and Mongolia get a little overwhelming to the otherwise immersive narrative, but a really fascinating book about commercial fossil hunting and selling. Like THE FEATHER THIEF, but with dinosaur fossils. It's a bloodless crime, and it's a really fascinating crime in that I'm not entirely sure what Prokopi was really imprisoned for (it's a lot of legal hopscotching, given that it's an issue of international law, of laws not entirely codified, and of an ar

    At times, the history of both fossil trade and Mongolia get a little overwhelming to the otherwise immersive narrative, but a really fascinating book about commercial fossil hunting and selling. Like THE FEATHER THIEF, but with dinosaur fossils. It's a bloodless crime, and it's a really fascinating crime in that I'm not entirely sure what Prokopi was really imprisoned for (it's a lot of legal hopscotching, given that it's an issue of international law, of laws not entirely codified, and of an area of legal weakness, not to mention that some of the things he did were because of someone else who suddenly died in the middle of everything which is rather inconvenient).

    The book looks deceptively longer than it is. Over half of the book is research notes. Williams did her work here, and I loved it deeply. Nonviolent true crime within niche industries is a thing I am finding myself loving more and more.

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