New Yorker magazine staff writer Paige Williams delves into the surprisingly perilous world of fossil collectors in this riveting true tale
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 more-famous T. rex — that had been unearthed in Mongolia. At 2.4 metres high and 7.3 metres long, the specimen was spectacular, and the winning bid was over $1 million.
Eric Prokopi, a 38-year-old Floridian, had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A one-time swimmer who’d spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi's singular obsession with fossils fuelled a thriving business, hunting for, preparing, and selling specimens to clients ranging from natural-history museums to avid private collectors like Leonardo DiCaprio.
But had Prokopi gone too far this time? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. An international custody battle ensued, with Prokopi watching as his own world unravelled.
The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history, and about 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, and enthusiast and opportunist can easily blur.
‘What a terrific book. A fascinating story of adventure and obsession, and a captivating journey into the world of fossils and fossil peddlers, scientists, museums, international politics, the history of life, and the nature of human nature. Williams writes beautifully about it all. If you love dinosaurs, paleontology, or just a rollicking good tale, you will love this book. I couldn't put it down.’
Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Birds
View all reviews
‘A cracking combination of true crime, dinosaurs, and top-notch investigative journalism. Paige Williams' riveting tale exposes the dodgy dealings of the black market trade in dinosaurs, an international underworld that that few people have probably heard of, and which breaks my heart as a paleontologist.’
Steve Brusatte, bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
‘Paige Williams is that rare reporter who burrows into a subject until all of its dimensions, all of its darkened corners and secret chambers, are illuminated. With The Dinosaur Artist, she has done more than reveal a gripping true crime story; she has cast light on everything from obsessive fossil hunters to how the earth evolved. This is a tremendous book.’
David Grann, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon
‘The Dinosaur Artist is a breathtaking feat of writing and reporting: a strange, irresistible, and beautifully written story steeped in natural history, human nature, commerce, crime, science, and politics. It's at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply sobering. I was blown away by the depth of its characters, its vivid details, and Paige Williams' incredible command of the facts. Bottom line: this is an extraordinary debut by one of the best nonfiction writers we've got.’
Rebecca Skloot, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
‘The Dinosaur Artist is a triumph. With peerless prose and sharp-eyed reporting, Paige Williams weaves a story that, even as it spans continents and transcends geological epochs, is deeply anchored in the passion and hubris of a rich cast of characters. Captivating, funny, and profound, it is easily one of the strongest works of non-fiction in years.’
Ed Yong, staff writer, The Atlantic; New York Times bestselling author of I Contain Multitudes
‘Paige Williams is as deft as the fossil hunters and skeleton builders she writes about. As they exhume treasures secreted in earthen repositories and assemble brilliant mounts from a scattering of dinosaur bones, she mines exquisite details from a quarry of source materials and pieces together a compelling story out of a spillage of human experience. The result is a work of art.’
Jack E. Davis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Gulf
‘I am in awe of Paige Williams. Every line of The Dinosaur Artist— from her deeply informed discussions of paleontology and the law to her often withering and hilarious descriptions — was a pleasure to read. Few nonfiction writers are capable of mining their characters with such a winning blend of sympathy, wonder, and rigour.’
Liza Mundy, New York Times bestselling author of Michelle and Code Girls
‘Williams' illuminating chronicle questions who has a right to nature.’
‘Prokopi's case is a fascinating example of the pull of prehistoric fossils and the power of law. Nature enthusiasts, scientists, and politics buffs will sink their teeth into this intriguing account.’
Jeffrey Meyer, Library Journal
‘New Yorker staff writer Williams uses the story of fossil enthusiast Eric Prokopi to illuminate the murky world of modern fossil hunting in this fascinating account ... a triumphant book that will appeal to a wide audience.’
‘A palaeontological page-turner … Williams has written a masterful book of suspense and true-crime that is as fair in the portrayal of its protagonists, as it is thorough in the context in which the story is situated.’
The Inquisitive Biologist
‘Ms. Williams’s writing is often concise and evocative … gripping and cinematic.’
Richard Conniff, The Wall Street Journal
‘An intriguing story of dinosaur smuggling … Good fun for fossil freaks.’