When a work of non-fiction opens with “On the last day of his old life, the dinosaur hunter went to the beach,” it’s a strong hint that tragedy is in store. If it’s tragedy you seek, The Dinosaur Artist won’t disappoint. It’s the story of Eric Prokopi, an entrepreneur who from childhood was fascinated by fossils. He began collecting, trading and then selling them as a hobby, but in adulthood he turned it into a business. He wasn’t the biggest or the most famous dealer, but was able to raise a family doing what he loved.
Fossils are a strange passion at the interface between science and art. It turns out that fossils, most of them of no scientific interest, are not particularly rare. In suitable rock formations they’re numerous and, with a bit of experience, easy to find. There are thousands of fossil-lovers out fossicking around in fossils beds every weekend, and there are wealthy individuals interested in displaying a fossil or two in their homes and offices. That was the basis of Eric’s business.
Fossils have two markets: paleontologists who want to study them but can’t easily buy them, and aficionados who use them to decorate their homes and offices. So a strange conflict has emerged. Paleontologists decry fossils being excavated by non-professionals and disappearing into private collections, and they generally refuse to co-operate with those they regard as unqualified. But that resistance has its limits. Those self-taught fossickers do love fossils, and when they find something of scientific importance they quite often realize it and donate their find to a museum or arrange for a wealthy donor to buy it and do so. As the self-trained point out, if only accredited paleontologists could excavate, very few fossils would ever see daylight.
Contemplate for a moment lutetium. That’s one of those obscure chemical elements last encountered in a Tom Lehrer ditty and before that when your high school chemistry teacher struggled to cite any commercial application for the stuff. Now imagine for a moment that technology suddenly developed an important use for lots of lutetium; and imagine further that most of the world’s known lutetium deposits were in Burkina Faso. Who would own that ore? Most would immediately answer it was the government of Burkina Faso, and that’s indeed how it usually works.
Fossils too are minerals from underground, and in general the rules are basically the same. The practice, however, is often quite different, for several reasons. Lutetium ore can’t be mined surreptitiously. There are only a few possible buyers for the ore worldwide. A suitcase full of lutetium ore is just dirt. But one suitcase can carry a fortune of the right kind of fossils. The temptation for plunder and smuggling is obvious. The Dinosaur Artist is about who owns artifacts of natural history. The parallel with lutetium seems clear, but an hour with The Dinosaur Artist will convince you that it’s not. In the US, for example,
if you find fossils on your own land, or on private property where you have permission to collect, they are yours to keep or sell or ignore or destroy, no matter what or how scientifically important the specimen may be… so it’s entirely legal to sell some fossils and illegal to sell others, and it’s often been hard for collectors to know the difference.
China and Mongolia, both abundant sources of fossils, completely ban the export of vertebrate fossils, but not of fossil plants, ammonites, etc.
Prokopi was one of many dealers offering Chinese and Mongolian fossils for sale. He was the one prosecuted because he had a tendency to live beyond his means and had to deal in more and more spectacular finds to pay his bills. That eventually led to his offering a major skeleton through an established art auctioneer.
A Mongolian living in the US noticed the advertising for the auction, which even specified the skeleton as being Mongolian, and called in law enforcement. Law enforcement didn’t in fact know how to respond. The original indictment was The United States … v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton, though they later charged Prokopi with smuggling. He pleaded guilty and at the sentencing the prosecutor admitted that, “[This] is a black market that has thrived in plain sight.” Prokopi got 3 months in prison, but he lost his business, his home, his car, pretty much everything. The real villain of the story is Sharon Levin, a federal official who jumped in uninvited and seized all Prokopi’s assets before any charges had even been filed. That was Prokopi’s real tragedy.
Paige Williams tells Prokopi’s story clearly and with sympathy. It’s easy reading. The only stumbling block is the 100 pages of notes (about 25% of the text and not indexed). Most of that consists of academic-style sources for all her quotes and assertions, but unfortunately there are many important asides about the story interspersed. Readers really interested in her account need to keep interrupting the story to check the notes to ensure they’re not missing something. It’s worth the trouble.