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The Dinosaur Artist
Obsession, Science, and the Global Quest for Fossils
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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 specimen was spectacular, and when the gavel sounded the winning bid was over $1 million.
Eric Prokopi, a thirty-eight-year-old Floridian, was the man who had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A onetime swimmer who spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi’s singular obsession with fossils fueled a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens, to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
But there was a problem. This time, facing financial strain, had Prokopi gone too far? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. As an international custody battle ensued, Prokopi watched as his own world unraveled.
In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans’ relationship with natural history and 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, enthusiast and opportunist, can easily blur.
In her first book, Paige Williams has given readers an irresistible story that spans continents, cultures, and millennia as she examines the question of who, ultimately, owns the past.
This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no information invented. My reporting began in 2009, but for the purposes of the book’s final form the immersive research occurred between 2012 and 2018. In the United States, I reported in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Wyoming. In Mongolia, I reported in the Gobi Desert, Töv Province, and Ulaanbaatar. In Canada, I reported in Edmonton, Alberta. In Europe, I reported in Munich, Germany, and in Charmouth, London, and Lyme Regis, England. The information that I gleaned from interviews with paleontologists, geologists, fossil dealers, preparators, collectors, museum curators, auctioneers, law enforcement, and various government agents may not appear in full here, yet these generous people’s insights informed the work. Written source material, some of it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, included unclassified and declassified U.S. embassy cables and State Department reports, civil lawsuits, Department of Justice criminal case files and asset forfeiture records, library collections, news archives, peer-reviewed research papers, and county court documents. I also relied upon sources’ personal photos, videos, correspondence, and papers. Mongolian documents were translated by Mongolians unrelated to the Mongolian government or the T. bataar case.
Much of this book grew out of “Bones of Contention,” a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker in January 2013. There, as here, I tried to convey the nuances of the debate over who owns, or should be allowed to collect and own, natural history, and how that conflict may in turn affect a range of interests, including public policy, science, museums, and geopolitics. Various scenes I observed directly. For convenience, I occasionally interchange “dinosaur,” “fossil dinosaur,” and “skeleton”—writing that someone “bought a dinosaur” I of course refer to the extinct animal’s stony remains. Likewise, I occasionally use “bone” for “fossil,” having explained that fossilization yields rock. The title The Dinosaur Artist is not intended to refer exclusively to a leading subject of this book, Eric Prokopi, but rather also to dinosaurs’ unparalleled power to remain culturally, scientifically, and aesthetically relevant despite extinction, and to the long, crucial intersection between science and art. Some readers may also choose to infer the formal definition of the word: “a habitual practitioner, of a specified reprehensible activity.” When speaking, some scientists refer to natural history museums by their acronyms (“AMNH” instead of “the AMNH”); although “the AMNH” clangs in my ear, I use that construction for clarity. I’ve borrowed slivers of my own language from the original New Yorker piece and from a Smithsonian article I later wrote about the endangered takhi horse, a creature that was a divine thrill to see in person on the Mongolian steppe.
In the summer of 2009, I came across a newspaper item about a Montana man convicted of stealing a dinosaur. The idea sounded preposterous. How was stealing a dinosaur even possible? And who would want to?
Nearly a decade earlier, this man, Nate Murphy, who led fossil-hunting tours in a geological signature in Montana called the Judith River Formation, had become well known for unveiling Leonardo, a late Cretaceous Brachylophosaurus and one of the best-preserved dinosaur skeletons ever found. A volunteer fossil hunter named Dan Stephenson had found the skeleton during one of Murphy’s excursions on a private ranch near the small town of Malta. The remains constituted the first sub-adult of its kind on record and, remarkably, still bore traces of “skin, scales, muscle, foot pads—and even his last meal in his stomach,” National Geographic reported. “To find one with so much external detail available, it’s like going from a horse and buggy to a steam combustion engine,” Murphy told the magazine. “It will advance our science a quantum leap.”
“Our science” was an intriguing phrase. Murphy wasn’t a trained scientist; he was an outdoorsman who had taught himself how to hunt fossils in the Cretaceous-bearing formations that run with photogenic accessibility through states like Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and South Dakota. He believed he had something to offer paleontology, and, presumably in pursuit of this idea, he had taken fossils that didn’t belong to him. (Not Leonardo; another dinosaur.) What at first appeared to be little more than a bizarre true-crime story became, to me, an absorbing question of our ongoing relationship with natural history, with the remnants of a world long gone.
We know which life-forms exist because we encounter them, but what came before? Answers can be found in rock. If you’ve ever picked up a shark tooth or a leaf-imprinted stone, you were holding a fossil—a time portal, a clue. By definition, fossils are prehistoric organic remains preserved in the earth’s crust by natural causes. If you, yourself, would like to become a fossil, a specific chain of events must occur. Your corpse must not be eaten or scattered by scavengers, or destroyed by other ruinous forces like weather and running water. You must be buried quickly in sediments or sand: metamorphic and igneous rock, which form under conditions too superheated and volatile to preserve much of anything, are no good at making fossils, but sedimentary rock—limestone, sandstone—proves an excellent tomb. Your soft tissues and organs will decompose, but unless they’re obliterated by the planet’s incessant chemical and tectonic motions, the hard bits—teeth and bone—will remain. These will be infiltrated by groundwater and will mineralize according to whatever elements exist in the patch of earth that has become your grave—eventually, you may become part crystal or iron. Then, to even start to be scientifically useful, you must be discovered.
Good luck with all that. It’s been estimated that less than one percent of the animal species that ever lived became fossils.
While the process is rare, the product is ubiquitous, at least regarding some species. But which fossils are important to science and how should they be protected? Paleontologists have one answer, commercial fossil dealers another, and they’ve been fighting about it for generations.
As the only record of life on Earth, fossils hold the key to understanding the history of the planet and its potential future. Studying them, scientists can better monitor pressing issues such as mass extinction and climate change; hunting, collecting, or viewing them, anyone may feel connected to both the universe’s infinite mystery and Earth’s tangible past. To see the dinosaur bone beds of the Liaoning province of northeastern China is to see a landscape that 120 million years ago featured lush lakes and forests in the shadow of active volcanoes. To encounter Glossopteris imprints—an extinct seed fern found in South America, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica—is to witness evidence that those continents once existed as a single landmass. To hold a Kansas clam is to touch a relic of the Western Interior Seaway, which for roughly 20 million years bisected North America, overlaying what are now North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, along with parts of fourteen other states and swaths of Canada and Mexico.
Fossils are found in every part of the world, and so are fossil collectors, who are legion. Collectors spend significant chunks of their lives hunting for fossils, researching fossils, buying fossils, displaying fossils, trading fossils, visiting fossils in museums, and talking—and talking and talking—about them. Fossil enthusiasts are as obsessed a segment of natural history lovers as ever existed. “I have been in people’s houses where every possible inch of their home is covered in fossils,” the vertebrate paleontologist Mark Norell, of the American Museum of Natural History, once said. “Even the dishwasher has trilobites in it.”
This, minus the dishwasher, has been going on for millennia. As humans collected the remains of one life form after another, naturalists built an inventory of the planet’s former inhabitants. That inventory today is known as the fossil record, a compendium that is postulated, debated, and revised by paleontologists through peer-reviewed research, providing a portrait of lost time. Without fossils, an understanding of the earth’s formation and history would not be possible. Without fossils, we would not know Earth’s age: 4.6 billion years. We would not know when certain creatures lived, when they died out, how they looked, what they ate. Without fossils, natural history museums might not exist. The geologic time scale would not exist because knowledge of the earth’s stratigraphy, or layers, would not exist. We would not know that the continents were not always where they are now, and that Earth’s shifting, sliding plates rearrange land and sea. We would not know the climate has warmed and cooled and is changing still. We would not know that five mass extinctions have occurred and that we’re in the sixth one now. We would have no idea of any ice age. Without fossils, we would not know that birds evolved from dinosaurs; or that Earth was already billions of years old before flowering plants appeared; or that sea creatures transitioned to life on land and primates to creatures that crafted tools, grew crops, and started wars. We would not know that rhinos once lived in Florida and sharks swam around the Midwest. We would not know that stegosaurs lived millions of years before T. rex, an animal that, in geologic time, is closer to human beings than to the first of its kind.
The earth’s layers are finite: each has a beginning, middle, and end, like tiramisu, wherein ladyfingers meet mascarpone. The most recent layers hold mammals, fishes, and birds not terribly different from those that are alive today, but the further back one goes, the more fantastical some of the creatures. The fossil record shows that life began with microscopic organisms and flourished to the unthinkably gargantuan animals of the Mesozoic, a 160-million-year era that ended some 65.5 million years ago. In the Age of Reptiles, dinosaurs crashed through forests, terrorized prey, zipped around like overstimulated roadrunners, and lub-lubbed along, looking for something leafy to eat and trying to avoid being eaten. Their remains continually surface as weather, erosion, and civilization peel the planet layer by layer.
Fossils are the single most important clue to understanding how the planet evolved, yet attitudes toward their protection vary from continent to continent, and from state to state. The United States, a particularly fossil-rich country, is unusual: policymakers have had no desire to mess with private-property laws, so it remains true that if you find fossils on your own land, or on private property where you have permission to collect, they are yours to keep or sell or ignore or destroy, no matter what or how scientifically important the specimen may be.
Three primary groups of people seek and covet fossils: paleontologists, collectors, and commercial hunters. Paleontologists hone their expertise through undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral courses that immerse them in geology, evolutionary biology, zoology, computer science, statistical analysis, ecology, chemistry, climatology, and other maths and sciences. They pursue specialties in areas like paleobotany (fossil plants), invertebrate paleontology (animals without backbones, like mussels and corals), micropaleontology (requires a microscope), and vertebrates (backbones). Paleontologists tend to work in academia and museums, publishing their research in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Geology and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Scientists believe it crucial to protect certain types of fossils by banning their trade. Commercial dealers, on the other hand, hunt, sell, and buy fossils, at trade shows, in privately owned natural history shops, and online. It is entirely legal to sell some fossils and illegal to sell others, and it’s often been hard for consumers to know the difference. Many dealers grew up hunting fossils and might have studied natural sciences in college if they’d had the chance. Most are self-taught. Many are libertarians and believe they should be able to do whatever they want as long as they’re not hurting anybody. Many loathe government regulations and feel entitled to fossils, taking the view that the earth belongs to everyone. Most fossil dealers feel that by collecting and selling fossils they’re rescuing materials that otherwise would erode, and that their industry provides a valuable service by supplying classrooms and collectors and, in some cases, museums, and by encouraging widespread interest in the natural world. Commercial hunters take pride in selling to museums, but they also court wealthy, private collectors. Successful dealers can make a living in fossils, though it is rarely a get-rich game, since so much of the profit folds back into the hunt. Overseas museums, especially those proliferating in China, Japan, and the Middle East, have no problem buying commercially while public museums in the United States—those supported by tax dollars—tend not to shop the market, preferring to collect their own materials under scientific conditions. While both a commercial hunter and a paleontologist may also be a collector, no reputable paleontologist is a dealer: paleontologists do not sell fossils for much the same reason hematologists don’t peddle vials of blood. Fossils are the data, it’s been said.
A fossil’s contextual information is as important as the fossil itself. Extracting a fossil minus that correlating data has been compared to removing a corpse from the scene of a homicide without noting, say, the presence of shell casings or biological evidence like semen and blood. Approximate cause and time of death may be inferred, but a fossil alone cannot tell the whole story; in fact, the whole story can never be told, at least not without a time machine. But the story starts to come together through the analysis of details like the circumstances of fossilization (called taphonomy), the presence of other fossil animals and plants, and stratigraphy, which helps paleontologists understand when the animal lived and died. The enormous femurs found protruding from the Big Bone Lick bogs of Kentucky (as happened in the 1700s) tell one story; the large three-toed footprints found sans bones in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts (as happened in the 1800s) tell another.
For decades the federal government debated whether and how to regulate fossil collecting, particularly regarding vertebrates, which are less common than invertebrates. The most extreme-minded paleontologists have long wanted a ban on commercial collecting, but commercial hunters organized against the idea. They defended their trade, and paleontologists defended the objects fundamental to their science.
Despite experience and field expertise, dealers who call themselves “commercial paleontologists” are not in fact paleontologists. Paleontology would not exist without them, though. The science started at the hands of natural history lovers—started long before the words science and paleontology even existed—and became perhaps the only discipline with a commercial aspect that simultaneously infuriates scientists and claims a legitimate role in the pantheon of discovery. The work of commercial hunters has allowed paleontologists some of their biggest breakthroughs and museums their most stunning displays. Museum visitors may not realize they’re often looking at specimens discovered not by scientists but rather by lay people like themselves. A California boy named Harley Garbani became obsessed with fossils in the 1930s, after finding part of a camel femur while following in the tracks of his father’s plow. He became a plumber but went on to find extraordinary, tiny fossils by crawling on his hands and knees in “cheaters” (jewelers’ goggles), plus the first significant Triceratops skeleton in over half a century and a T. rex skeleton so good it would take years for someone to come across a better one. By the time Garbani died, in 2011, he had collected for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the University of California–Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology. Lowell Dingus, an American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) paleontologist who knew Garbani while in grad school at Berkeley, called him “among the greatest fossil collectors that ever lived and the greatest one that I have ever known and worked with.”
A more recent collector was Stan Sacrison, an electrician and plumber from Harding County, South Dakota, the self-declared “T. rexCapital of the World.” In the 1980s and ’90s, Sacrison found such notable rex specimens that with each new discovery his twin brother, Steve, a part-time gravedigger and equally gifted fossil hunter, carved notches into the handle of his Bobcat earthmover. Discovering even one or part of one T. rex was a feat, given that fewer than fifteen had been unearthed. The Sacrison twins, who lived in the tiny town of Buffalo, had grown up near fossil beds and were taken with the hunt. They had learned that it was smart to search after a big storm or a spring thaw because weather and erosion unwrap gifts of bone. They had familiarized themselves with geology, knowing it’s as pointless to search for mastodon in rock formations 100 million years old as it is to look for Vulcanodon in sediments laid down during the Pleistocene.
Another name to remember is Kathy Wankel. When the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) unveils its new hall of dinosaurs in 2019, after a five-year, $48 million renovation, it will feature, for the first time, its own Tyrannosaurus rex, courtesy of Wankel, a Montana rancher who in 1988 found the skeleton now known as “The Nation’s T. rex.” The specimen is considered important partly because it includes the first complete T. rex forelimb known to science.
Despite amateurs’ contributions, science and commerce developed stark opposing arguments:
Such were the contours of a seemingly intractable conflict. “Whether or not it’s okay to sell and buy fossils is a matter of debate on scientific and ethical grounds, with analytical rigor and professional honesty squaring off against free enterprise,” the paleontologists Kenshu Shimada and Philip Currie and their colleagues wrote in Palaeontologia Electronica. They called “the battle against heightened commercialization” of fossils “the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.”
On both sides, the disagreement struck people as a shame, because scientists and commercial hunters at least were united in their love of one thing: fossils. If only more people would take a sincere interest in “rocks that can talk to you,” the paleobotanist Kirk Johnson, head of the Smithsonian’s NMNH, once told me. “The fact that our planet buries its dead is an amazing thing. The fact that you can read the history of the planet in fossils is profoundly cool. A smart kid can find a fossil and tell you what happened to the planet 4 billion years ago. We finally figured out how the planet works, and we did it through fossils.”
If the confessed dinosaur thief Nate Murphy became an emblem of the tension between science and commerce, he didn’t reign for long. In the spring of 2012, a case emerged that surpassed all others in its international scope and labyrinthine particulars, touching on collectors, smuggling, marriage, democracy, poverty, artistry, museums, mining, Hollywood, Russia, China, criminal justice, presidential politics, explorers, Mongolian culture, the auction industry, and the history of science. This book is that untold story.
“SUPERB TYRANNOSAURUS SKELETON”
ON THE LAST DAY OF HIS OLD LIFE, THE DINOSAUR HUNTER went to the beach. This was Florida—Atlantic side, not Gulf. An overcast Sunday morning: the twentieth day of the fifth month of the two thousand and twelfth year CE. Eric Prokopi was thirty-eight. His daughter, Rivers, was turning three. Eric and his wife, Amanda, lugged a carload of party gear from their home in Gainesville across the upper peninsula, to St. Augustine, a sixteenth-century city named for a fourth-century theologian who, as a boy, stole pears off a tree simply because it was forbidden, later writing, “Foul was the evil and I loved it.”
The Prokopis drove straight onto the foreshore, as is done in that town, and set up on the sand. The previous year’s party theme had been Pirates & Princesses. Eric, a tall, muscular ex-swimmer, had dressed in a frilly pink frock and tiara, accessorized with the black wraparound sunglasses of a mercenary. This year’s theme was Little Mermaid. Invitations pictured the birthday girl, a brown-eyed towhead with a heart-shaped face, wearing a finned tail and a platinum wig whose synthetic waves cascaded down her back. Now she had on a shimmering green skirt and a purple plastic crown, to which Amanda had affixed a dried starfish from the burgeoning inventory of her new interior decorating business, Everything Earth. Rivers’s brother, Greyson, two years older, wore a long-sleeved black swim shirt printed with the outline of a great white shark, and wraparound shades like his dad’s. All the essential elements were soon in place: tent, tables, sunscreen, cupcakes. A clear-acrylic cooler dispensed cerulean Hawaiian Punch. A watermelon, cut in the shape of an open-mouthed shark, offered a gullet full of gummy fish that glowed like sunlit rubies.
Every few minutes, Eric stepped away to pace the sand with his Blackberry to his ear, increasingly anxious about the news from New York. He should have felt relaxed by the break of the surf and the opportunity to search the shoreline for washed-up treasure, as he had loved to do since childhood, but to be distracted and stressed was to miss these pleasures even while enacting them.
The competing tensions, years in accrual, were beginning to show on his body. 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. His enormous hands—bratwurst fingers, saucer palms—were callused and nicked. Amanda told friends that Eric worked so hard, she practically had to prop him up to make him eat. The kids barely saw him anymore. Until recently he had never been a drinker, but now he needed the dulling effect of at least one vodka cocktail before he could sleep. When working on big projects he might come to bed at four in the morning or not all.
Late at night, Amanda could step to a rear window of their house, Serenola, and look out at the huge prefabricated workshop they had recently installed in the backyard—the recent shift in Eric’s vocation required more space. The shop, 5,000 square feet, with four bays and a pitched roof, stood beyond the swimming pool where the elegant landscaping gave way to the wild rear acres of the property, in a part of southwest Gainesville that developers hadn’t yet managed to ruin. Without close neighbors, Eric could work as noisily and late as necessary, the night vibrating with the high whine of his air scribe. Well into the hours of ambient frog song, Amanda could see the lights burning, sparks shooting off the welder.
A Library Journal Best Book of 2018
A Smithsonian Best Science Book of 2018