In 2012, a very unusual item appeared in an auction catalog: a nearly complete skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar, the eight feet tall, 24-feet long cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex. The expected million dollar sale would solve a lot of financial problems for the skeleton’s owner Eric Prokopi, a Floridian who had turned his life-long passion for hunting fossils into a business selling natural history specimens to museums and celebrity collectors.
There was only one problem, T. bataar was unearthed in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and Mongolian law forbid the export of its significant paleontological specimens. So how had Prokopi obtained T. bataar and would the skeleton’s sale be blocked by an international group of paleontologists determined to see it returned home to Mongolia?
Based on her New Yorker article on the sale, Paige Williams has expanded the personal story of Prokopi’s fossil obsession into a millennia-long epic detailing the annals of paleontology, the geopolitical history of Mongolia, the uneasy friction between scientists and commercial fossil hunters, international law, and high end, luxury auction houses. From the Late Cretaceous Period when T. bataar walked the earth, to the 13th century when Ghengis Khan’s Mongol Empire stretched from Eastern Asia to Eastern Europe, to the 1800s when fossil hunter Marry Anning discovered history-changing specimens in the cliffs along the English Channel, The Dinosaur Artist covers a lot of territory.
The amount of detail can be daunting, but Williams centers the book by always remembering to bring it back to the personal story of Eric Prokopi, a man who might have let his obsession with natural history go too far.