An intriguing story of dinosaur smuggling.
New Yorker staff writer and National Magazine Award winner Williams debuts with an account of a 38-year-old American fossil hunter who, in 2012, sold the reassembled bones of a 24-foot-long T. bataar from Mongolia at auction in New York. The illicit $1 million sale—the skeleton was returned to Mongolia—marked the downfall of Eric Prokopi, a fossil enthusiast who had peddled specimens to museums and collectors for years. In this densely detailed, wide-ranging narrative, the author uses the taciturn and constantly cash-short Prokopi’s adventures in bone-hunting as a window on the world of fossil collecting. Dinosaurs roamed the Earth for 165 million years, but it was only recently, in 1994, that the first natural history auction occurred, creating heightened interest among wealthy buyers and providing cover for the sale of illegal fossils and forgeries. Williams delves into all aspects of the fossil business, from explorations in the Gobi Desert to Tucson’s innumerable trade shows to natural history “field clubs” to the frequent conflicts between scientists and commercial dealers. She describes a colorful array of paleontologists, tradesmen, and hobbyists, including pipe insulator Frank Garcia, who unearthed the richest Pleistocene fossil bed in North America, and the celebrated Indiana Jones–like explorer-zoologist Roy Chapman Andrews, who became a 1920s hero after discovering dinosaur eggs. The flow of her story of science and crime is sometimes interrupted—rather than enhanced—by lengthy descriptions of people and events. Passages about Prokopi’s dribbling wine down his shirt at an auction preview and his wife’s penchant for house-flipping convey little beyond the need for editing. At other times, the author’s deep reporting yields memorable passages on desert car caravans and the assembly of dinosaur skeletons. She brings to life an unlikely mix of museum officials and bone salesmen as well as the single-minded pursuit of “income and adventure” that drove her smuggler-protagonist to Mongolia in the service of paleontology and profit.
Good fun for fossil freaks.