STEP RIGHT UP, ladies and gentlemen, and get yourself your very own bit of fossilized natural history. Dinosaur skulls. Sharks’ teeth. Palm fronds. Flowers. Leaves. Skeletonized fish. No longer relegated to the world’s natural history museums, plants and animals from millions of years ago have become the latest, trendiest objets d’art among collectors. Consequently, the 21st-century commercial fossil trade is booming.
For most of the 20th century — indeed for centuries prior — fossils were bought and sold outside of the auction house circuit. This changed with the 1997 sale of Sue, the famous Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton found in South Dakota. The world took note of her stunning price tag ($7.6 million, plus a hefty commission, for a sum of a $8.36 million): there was clearly a market for fossils — and a very lucrative market at that. Over the last two decades, renowned auction houses like Butterfields, Sotheby’s, Heritage Auctions, and Christie’s have expanded their catalogs to include fossils, which are estimated at anywhere between hundreds and millions of dollars. “Everything changed on that day,” the late Notre Dame paleontologist J. Keith Rigby Jr. lamented at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in 1997, held the week after Sue’s sale. According to Rigby, “This sale may be the single most damaging action in the history of vertebrate paleontology.”
There is indeed a very serious cost to auctioning off natural history. When fossils go to the highest bidder, the science of studying them suffers. Paleontologists excavate fossils in a systematic, methodical fashion, carefully recording the stratigraphy, the context, and the spatial data that surrounds them, but this important information is stripped away when fossils are prospected and commercially sold. Once fossils disappear into private collections, it becomes difficult (many paleontologists would argue impossible) to do any subsequent studies on them; they are no longer part of a shared natural history heritage. At commercial auctions, fossils are transformed into luxury commodities — they become trophies, objects to be acquired and prized.
In 2012, the commercial fossil market hit a high-profile crisis point, when the skeleton of an ill-gotten Mongolian dinosaur — a Tarbosaurus bataar, a close relative of the American Tyrannosaurus rex — went to auction in New York City, violating Mongolian law as well as a temporary restraining order by a judge in Dallas. Through the Herculean efforts of Mongolian paleontologist Bolortsetseg “Bolor” Minjin, who first alerted Mongolian authorities to its sale while she was working at the American Museum of Natural History, and a plethora of other individuals, the sale of the fossil skeleton, which opened at $1 million, didn’t stand. The Tarbosaurus has since been returned to Mongolia, where it presides over the since-opened Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs in downtown Ulaanbaatar. The museum is dedicated to the hundreds of fossils that have been smuggled out of Mongolia and, subsequently, repatriated. The Tarbosaurus incident illustrated exactly what paleontologists had argued for decades — that the commercialization of fossils creates an incentive to sabotage science and even to violate international law.
But how, exactly, did Eric Prokopi — the Tarbosaurus seller — get his hands on the fossil to begin with? How did the sale proceed so far, despite calls and legal efforts to halt it? And has the repatriation of Tarbosaurus to Mongolia set a new precedent for what we consider to be acceptable — and unacceptable! — behavior in the commercial fossil trade?
In The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, journalist Paige Williams tells the fascinating story of the Tarbosaurus skeleton and of how its seller, Eric Prokopi, became the most infamous commercial fossil trader in the world. But more significantly — and more interestingly — she also explores how thousands of decisions, made over hundreds of years and across a plethora of countries, brought us to the circumstances of that sale. Williams’s painstakingly detailed reporting reminds us that events like these are far more complicated than they might seem, and if we want the commercial fossil trade to be anything other than what it currently is, we must understand the intricate pushes and pulls of the industry.
As Williams explains in her author’s note, The Dinosaur Artist grew out of a well-known piece she wrote for The New Yorker in January 2013, called “Bones of Contention.” That piece introduced readers to the Tarbosaurus and to Eric Prokopi, and conveyed just how nuanced the question of ownership in the 21st-century world of fossils really is. It also showed how fossils bridge the worlds of public policy, science, museums, international law, and the high-end world of auctioned luxuries. But it didn’t delve into the Mongolian side of the fossil smuggling chain or ground the story in the larger problematique of fossil collecting and the history of natural history.
And this is where The Dinosaur Artist excels. With more space, Williams is able to cover more characters, more history about fossil sales (there’s a great section on the 19th-century fossil collector Mary Anning), and more geographic terrain. She interviews Mongolians who knew those who helped Prokopi access the skeleton, as well as the scientists and politicians who worked tirelessly to bring the fossil back home. These additional details and characters bring home the fact that the challenge of combating fossil smuggling and reforming the trade is truly daunting.
While readers will probably cheer when the Tarbosaurus is returned to Mongolia, the pages and pages of interviews with Prokopi, his then-wife Amanda, and his colleagues in the commercial trade offer a reminder that Prokopi didn’t see himself as trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. His sole statement to the media, which appears both in the original New Yorker essay and in The Dinosaur Artist is simple: “I’m just a guy […] trying to support my family — not some international bone smuggler.” It’s easy to vilify commercial fossil hunters as people who sell off fossils willy-nilly, and The Dinosaur Artist is careful to show Prokopi as a nature- and fossil-loving enthusiast, who felt trapped by the fickle world of commercial fossil trading. He was convinced that selling the Tarbosaurus skeleton was the only way out of a serious problem of over-leveraging himself with a plethora of fossils. (It’s worth noting, too, that Prokopi had sold a Tarbosaurus skull the year before to the American actor Nicolas Cage. Cage has returned the skull to Mongolia.) But no matter how charming Prokopi’s enthusiasm may be, he did willfully break the law.
Williams recounts how he twisted the truth on customs declarations in order to avoid claiming that he had dinosaur fossils from Mongolia. Since 1924, Mongolia has had a ban on the sale or export of fossils found in the country — which is what tipped off Bolor Minjin to the hinkiness of the Tarbosaurus’s sale. Since the species is only found in Mongolia, the fossil must have been illegally exported. Williams consistently balances that juxtaposition — effectively underscoring the question of who ought to be able to own natural history, like fossils — offering a fair, balanced, and nuanced treatment of her subjects.
Williams is right to note that, in some circumstances, buying and selling fossils is completely legal and above board. However, this often isn’t the case and certainly wasn’t with the Tarbosaurus. The Mongolian case is a powerful example of the fact that having laws on the books that protect fossils is one thing, while cracking down on the illegal fossil trade is another. According to the ICE database, millions of dollars of black market fossils are traded each year, with very few shipments seized, fewer arrests made, even fewer prosecutions, and hardly any guilty verdicts. Part of the reason that the Tarbosaurus story is so compelling is that the fossil smuggler was, for once, caught, tried, and served time in jail, while the fossil was sent back. It’s a neat and tidy narrative.
But was the Tarbosaurus a turning point in combating international fossil smuggling, or will it remain an aberration? One promising sign is that, in the years since the aborted sale, repatriated fossils continue to stream into the halls of Ulaanbaatar’s Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Perhaps the trend will continue. Time will tell.