The Bizarre True Crime Story Surrounding a ‘Big Sexy Dinosaur’

Motherboard talks to Paige Williams, author of The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy.

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Sep 11 2018, 3:59pm

Customs officials return T. bataar skeleton to Mongolia. Image: Michael Johnson/ICE

It’s a tale so expansive that Nicolas Cage, Preet Bharara, and a colossal carnivorous dinosaur that lived some 70 million years ago are all entangled in its web. That alone should pique your curiosity, but it barely scratches the surface of the paleontological true crime story that unfolds in The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams, out from Hachette on Tuesday.

The book is centered on Floridian fossil hunter and dealer Eric Prokopi, the man behind the dinosaur defendant in the fantastically named court case: United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton.

Image: Hachette Book Group

Prosecuted by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, the dispute was over a 24-foot-long skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar, a cousin of T. rex, which Prokopi procured and prepared for auction. But, tipped off that the T. bataar was likely Mongolian in origin, the Mongolian government obtained a restraining order preventing the sale of the skeleton for over $1 million, due to the nation’s strict anti-smuggling laws.

Williams first explored the case in depth in a 2013 feature in The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. Now, she expands the story, in granular detail, fleshing out the eccentric cast of characters—contemporary and historic—who inevitably get bundled into fossil-hunting tales.

But the real hook of The Dinosaur Artist is how Prokopi’s case is backlit by the broader forces that shaped it, from cultural awakenings in post-communist Mongolia to the centuries-old tension between commercial fossil dealers and academic paleontologists. As a testament to her methodical approach, Williams’ “Notes” section stretches about 90 pages at the back of the book, chronicling the wealth of interviews, documentation, and references upon which the story is built.

Paige Williams. Image: Alison Forner

Motherboard spoke with Williams about her research process, her love of subcultures, and “the big sexy dinosaur” at the heart of The Dinosaur Artist. (The interview transcript has been edited for brevity and to avoid spoilers.)

Motherboard: What inspired you to report on Eric Prokopi’s case, first for The New Yorker and now in a full-length book?

Paige Williams: In the summer of 2009, I happened to be home (I’m from Mississippi). I was sitting in a coffee shop reading the Tupelo Daily Journal, my hometown paper, and came across this little news brief about a dinosaur thief from Montana. His name is Nate Murphy, and he’s in the book—just barely.

But I couldn’t believe there was such a thing as a dinosaur thief. I didn’t understand how it was possible or why anyone would want to do it. I really like subcultures and understanding why people inhabit them, and it just seemed like a world that was fascinating and full of authentic characters—people who are aggressively themselves, who are irreverent, and who sometimes break the law, though most of them don’t.

Then, this Prokopi case came along. I liked it because had so many threads worth exploring—the international trade, the Gobi Desert, Mongolian culture and history, New York, Florida, Virginia, Tucson, and Denver, and every fossil zone in between. It just had a lot worth pursuing and following.

I guess the best way to put it is that I saw it as more than a true crime story. It wasn’t just this kind of bizarre tale of a guy who decided to go dig up a dinosaur. That’s not what happened. As it turns out, it was about the economy, the transition from communism to capitalism in Mongolia, and the fact that people needed money and saw criminal opportunities that led them to connect with fossil hunters from other countries and continents.

Given the longstanding legal fuzziness over fossil smuggling and commercial sales, what was surprising about how the Prokopi case turned out?

T. bataar is such a T-Rexy dinosaur. It was, as one dealer put it to me, “this big sexy dinosaur.” If it had been a toe bone, nobody would’ve latched onto it. But the fact that it was this completely restructured skeleton and that it was on offer so publicly in New York City in a very visible and high-profile venue—that attracted attention.

I think it surprised Prokopi that people noticed it so much because this stuff—the sale of Mongolian materials—had been happening for years. Other dealers had sold everything up to and including skulls, but he was the first to put a whole dinosaur together and to have it appear in such a splashy way, in a glossy auction catalog, and be marketed so vigorously in the media.

How do you think this case will change the way that commercial fossil dealers do business, if it does at all?

Some dealers have told me that the trade itself is being self-policed in a way that it wasn’t before. But the thing is, people are always going to want these materials. There will always be a market for them. There will always be someone, no matter what industry you’re talking about, who is going to try to bend the rules, circumvent the system, and get what they want. There will always be collectors that want things that are hard to get so I don’t see this case vanquishing the trade in illicit bones.

I see dealers being more careful, right now at least, and taking more pride in being on the right side of this. I think they felt disrespected for so long, and illegitamized for so long, because they’ve made enormous contributions to paleontology and to museums of natural history but have been diminished in some ways by people who thought they didn’t have the right to handle these materials.

Read More: A Holiday Dinosaur Fossil Gift Giving Guide, Specifically for Nicolas Cage

So, I think some of this is residual anger and frustration that they are good technicians in the field and really good hunters, in away that a lot of scientists frankly aren’t. They just wanted their due, and nobody’s ever quite given them their deserved due.

There’s often been a kind of class divide between commercial fossil dealers and professional paleontologists in history. Do you think that gap will ever close in the future?

I think it will stay the way it is because part of the class divide is access to education and a willingness to play by the rules. If you’re going to work in academia then there’s a set of rules and expectations that go with that. You don’t get very far in academia unless you abide by the standard path. If [fossil-hunters] want to be loose and independent and their own boss, they can’t necessarily do that in academia.

That’s not to say that the ones who don’t want to do [academia] are out there breaking the law—that’s not it at all. And paleontologists tend to be fabulous adventurers, too, it’s not that they’re not. But when you don’t have oversight, you can chart your own year, and chart your own day. That also means you live with the financial losses and the lack of a structured paycheck and income. A lot of those [commercial] guys, I can’t see them moving into a world that would limit them. I think the double-track will always be there.

Is this pattern of litigating the ownership of fossils likely to play out in other countries, beyond Mongolia?

It depends on the place. Not every place is going to turn out to be rich in Cretaceous dinosaurs, for example. You might have a locality that’s rich in Ice Age mammals. Every place is sort of its own thing. In terms of Cretaceous dinosaurs, so far, there’s only a certain number of places where that’s even possible. And people go for the dinosaurs, that’s what a lot of collectors want and what hunters want to find.

I think each country is going to figure out what its stance is on that, but when you’re looking at developing countries, they have other more pressing issues that they are trying to work out—survival, for example, or finding their way to a stable government. So it depends on how stable the government is, how serious they are about cracking down on this kind of thing, and also just where it’s happening. If it’s a treasure trove place, like the Gobi, that’s one thing but if it’s a place where not much has been found yet, there won’t be a bone rush.

Does the sentimental and cultural heritage value of fossils play a big role in these legal battles, and not only the commercial side?

Yes, and I think Mongolia in particular is fascinating in that way, because for so long under communism they weren’t allowed to think of it as their own. They’ve always thought dearly about nature. It’s a pastoral society despite the fact that two million people live in Ulaanbaatar—the ties are still first and foremost to the land, and sky, and water. Nature reigns over everything.

So that sensibility was already there. I don’t want to speak for the Mongolian people, obviously, but it seems that they’ve awakened to the fact that they must continue to take good care of their natural resources.

The book quotes Facebook posts made by people involved in the story. What prompted you to use social media as part of your reporting?

I think Facebook inspires people to pose a lot—like, “look how great my life is”—but it’s also a place where people can often just be themselves. It was also helpful for me to connect the dots on the timeline, [answering questions like]: When did they post that this item was for sale?

It was really helpful for that purpose, and to get a sense of how they interact with other people, because when you are trying to reconstruct the reporting on that kind of stuff, they can’t remember. They can’t remember what they did last week, much less how they said something, unless it was so profound that they’d never forget it.

When you are talking to people—and asking, “What did you say or think then?”—they are often so aware of the fact that they’re sitting with a reporter that they fancy up their answer in some way. Whereas [on Facebook], it’s actually them. That’s them talking, that’s their uninhibited response to that moment. Often, you can’t get people to go back there in an authentic way.

What’s next for you? Are you going to stay in the natural history beat?

No (laughs). At one point, I told somebody I never wanted to hear the word “dinosaur” again, just because this project took so long. But part of the reason it took so long is that I fell in absolute love with the whole world of it, and the people who inhabit both sides of that world, the scientists and the independent hunters. The people who can’t help themselves and go out and hunt obsessively—that’s amazing to me and I had a hard time letting it go because I wanted to keep living in that world for a while longer.

But at some point you do have to move on. I hope the next one doesn’t take a decade.

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