New Yorker magazine staff writer Paige Williams explores the riveting and perilous world of fossil collectors in this "tremendous" (David Grann) true tale of one Florida man's attempt to sell a dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia--"a triumphant book" (Publishers Weekly) that is "steeped in natural history, human nature, commerce, crime, science, and politics" (Rebecca Skloot).
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.
About the Author
Paige Williams is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a Mississippi native. A National Magazine Award winner for feature writing, she has had her journalism anthologized in various volumes of the Best American series, including The Best American Magazine Writing and The Best American Crime Writing. She is the Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and has taught at schools including the University of Mississippi, New York University, the Missouri School of Journalism, and, at M.I.T., in the Knight Science Journalism program. Williams has been a fellow of The MacDowell Colony and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. At The New Yorker, she has written about suburban politics in Detroit, the death penalty in Alabama, paleoanthropology in South Africa, and the theft of cultural palimony from the Tlingit peoples of Alaska.
The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy is the first book by New Yorker staff writer, Harvard Neiman Fellow, graduate of Columbia and the University of Mississippi, and Tupelo, Mississippi native Paige Williams. We knew she had a book in her, but we didn’t know she had this book in her, the fascinating story of Eric Prokofi, whose Florida childhood as a shark’s tooth diviner would lead him to Wyoming, Montana, Canada, and eventually Mongolia in search of Tarbosaurus bataar, first cousin to T-Rex and worth $1.5 million on the “gray” market, where international law was unclear and even unformed until now, 65 million years after these magical creatures roamed our planet. A riveting story of intrigue and adventure, a pleasing primer on paleontology, and a masterful portrait of its characters, The Dinosaur Artist will be an enormous hit this fall, with its publication in September. —RH