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Paige Williams, author of The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, delves into the sometimes-perilous world of the illicit international fossil trade through the story of dealer Eric Prokopi’s dangerous obsession with a rare dinosaur skeleton in a conversation with The Atlantic’s Ed Yong.
From the rush to uncover dinosaur bones in the 19th century American West to recent discoveries in the Middle East and Asia, the hunt for fossils that illuminate the planet’s distant past has long captured the imagination of scientists and the public—and in particular, those of “commercial” paleontologists.
One such dealer was Eric Prokopi, whose singular obsession with fossils was the basis for a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
In 2012, he brought a rare prize to auction in New York City: a nearly complete 8-foot high, 24-foot long skeleton of a T. bataar from Mongolia. Its enormous skull and teeth revealed the apex predator's close relation to the storied Tyrannosaurus rex. Prokopi’s audacious attempt to auction the skeleton for $1 million already had drawn scorn from colleagues who worried he would taint a trade that was already under fire from the scientific community.
The sale fell apart when the president of Mongolia demanded the dinosaur's return. The custody battle for the bones triggered an international incident that blew open the black market for dinosaur fossils and reverberated through the worlds of paleontology, auctions, and geopolitics—and sent Prokopi, who pleaded guilty to smuggling dinosaur bones, to prison.
Copies of The Dinosaur Artist (Hachette Books) are available for purchase and signing.
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