Summary and book reviews of The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams

The Dinosaur Artist

Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy

by Paige Williams

The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams X
The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams
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  • Published:
    Sep 2018, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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About this Book

Book Summary

New Yorker magazine staff writer Paige Williams explores the riveting and perilous world of fossil collectors in this true tale of one Florida man's attempt to sell a dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia.

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 most famous animal that ever lived. The fossils now on display in a Manhattan event space had been unearthed in Mongolia, more than 6,000 miles away. At eight-feet high and 24 feet long, the specimen was spectacular, and when the gavel sounded the winning bid was over $1 million.

Eric Prokopi, a thirty-eight-year-old Floridian, was the man who had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A onetime swimmer who spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi's singular obsession with fossils fueled a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens, to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

But there was a problem. This time, facing financial strain, had Prokopi gone too far? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. As an international custody battle ensued, Prokopi watched as his own world unraveled.

In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history and 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, enthusiast and opportunist, can easily blur.

In her first book, Paige Williams has given readers an irresistible story that spans continents, cultures, and millennia as she examines the question of who, ultimately, owns the past.

This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no information invented. My reporting began in 2009, but for the purposes of the book's final form the immersive research occurred between 2012 and 2018. In the United States, I reported in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Wyoming. In Mongolia, I reported in the Gobi Desert, Töv Province, and Ulaanbaatar. In Canada, I reported in Edmonton, Alberta. In Europe, I reported in Munich, Germany, and in Charmouth, London, and Lyme Regis, England.

The information that I gleaned from interviews with paleontologists, geologists, fossil dealers, preparators, collectors, museum curators, auctioneers, law enforcement, and various government agents may not appear in full here, yet these generous people's insights informed the work. Written source material, some of it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The eponymous dinosaur artist, 38-year-old Eric Prokopi, is the hapless protagonist in a story with roots that crisscross the planet and date back to the 12th century. Every detail builds to a crescendo of events, greed, and crossed purposes that left me breathless.   (Reviewed by Donna Chavez).

Full Review Members Only (648 words).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
[Paige] 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.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. To [a] foundation of solid research, she adds a vivid storytelling style. The combination results in a triumphant book that will appeal to a wide audience.

Author Blurb Steve Brusatte, bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
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.

Author Blurb Ed Yong, staff writer, The Atlantic; New York Times bestselling author of I Contain Multitudes
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.

Author Blurb Jack E. Davis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Gulf
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.

Author Blurb Liza Mundy, New York Times bestselling author of Michelle and Code Girls
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 rigor.

Author Blurb David Grann, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon
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.

Author Blurb Rebecca Skloot, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction
The Dinosaur Artist is a tale that has everything: passion, science, politics, intrigue, and, of course, dinosaurs. Paige Williams is a wonderful storyteller.

Author Blurb Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Birds
What a terrific book...If you love dinosaurs, paleontology, or just a rollicking good tale, you will love this book. I couldn't put it down.

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Beyond the Book

Is There Room for the Amateur in Modern Scientific Research?

Artist's rendering of Gaia14aaeScientific discoveries were once often made by amateurs (often self-educated, curious members of the upper class), who carved out disciplines based on their interests in fields such as medicine, astronomy, physics and natural history, to name a few. The word "amateur" has a Latin etymological root – amator – meaning "lover." Although these days the front lines of scientific discovery are mainly peopled by professional scientists, there is still room for the amateur scientist driven by a passion for an area of study.

In The Dinosaur Artist, Williams quotes former curator of the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution Clayton Ray, who stressed the importance of the amateur community, explaining that "an ever...

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