Where do fossils belong? Should they be housed in museums, available for study by scientists to learn more about our planet’s deep history? Or can they be treated like exclusive souvenirs, traded and auctioned on a market that stocks the private collections of rich people? Journalist Paige Williams here tells the full story, warts and all, of a high-profile auction gone awry. She initially reported on this in 2013 in the New Yorker. Up for sale? A fully reconstructed skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar, the Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.
In what can only be called a palaeontological page-turner, Williams here meticulously documents the life of the Florida fossil hunter Eric Prokopi who turned his hobby into a business, enjoying success upon success. After selling two imported T. bataar skulls to movie stars, he hoped to hit the jackpot when a Mongolian fossil dealer send him images of an almost complete T. bataar skeleton. After all, the T. rex skeleton nick-named Sue had sold at auction for a staggering US$ 8.36 million only a decade earlier. Prokopi seems to have drawn few lessons from the protracted legal proceedings around this skeleton (see Fiffer’s Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found) and bought the fossilised bones, turned them into a large display piece, and put it up for auction. And that’s when Mongolia called to claim their skeleton back…
Although by law fossils dug up in Mongolia are state property, the government has not been particularly active in enforcing this rule. The result is a thriving black market that is stripping the Gobi Desert of spectacular fossils. Yet, this was such a bold move, that a Mongolian scientist in the US sprung into action and alerted her government. At this point, the repatriation of the skeleton becomes a bargaining chip in political games, used by a presidential candidate in Mongolia to curry him favours with voters. As the auction goes ahead amidst much media attention, the net starts to close in on Prokopi. I will not spoil the story further, as it is nail-biting in places.
“As the auction goes ahead amidst much media attention, the net starts to close in on Prokopi”
Williams provides a wealth of background information on the major players involved and delves deep into history. Next to Prokopi’s story, readers will get canned histories about the historical perception of fossil finds (see The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times and Fossil Legends of the First Americans), the infamous rivalry between American palaeontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel C. Marsh which is known as the Bone Wars (see The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age and The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between ED Cope and OC Marsh and the Rise of American Science), the first fossil-collecting expeditions in the Gobi Desert by the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920s (see Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions), and the life of English fossil collector Mary Anning (see Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters).
But next to relevant palaeontological history, Williams also provides background information on the rise of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, which became a major trading ground for fossils, the ancient history of Mongolia and the exploits of Genghis Khan, and political developments in Mongolia, including recent presidential elections, the state of its democracy, voting methods, and the country’s foreign relations with the USA, Russia, and China. I can imagine that some readers will think that Williams goes off on tangents a fair bit. This is especially true once you realise that the main narrative runs for 284 pages and is followed by 88 (!) pages of notes, some of which run multiple pages in small print. In these she provides much more background information still, presenting whole canned histories of, for example, Pliny the Elder, Thomas Jefferson, or the discovery of fossils in England. I personally didn’t mind the rich tapestry in which she sets her story. After all, things never happen in isolation, and this story spans multiple countries, each with their own unique histories.
“Where do fossils belong? [this] book does much to show the complexities this question raises”
So, where do fossils belong? Williams does not choose sides, but her thrilling book does much to show the complexities this question raises. Even palaeontologists are divided on this topic. Robert Bakker (author of the classic The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction), for example, is quoted praising the contributions of knowledgeable amateur fossil hunters. Others, however, bemoan the information that is lost when fossils are dug up without documenting the dig site in detail, not to mention that private collections are rarely or easily accessible for scientific study.
What becomes painfully obvious when reading this book is that palaeontology as a discipline, like so many others, is chronically underfunded. There are many more fossils weathering out of rocks than scientists can possibly document, let alone study in detail. The fact that researchers are still discovering new species in museum collections that have been in storage for decades, sometimes centuries (see my review of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums) speaks volumes. Similarly, is repatriation of fossils always the best? The descriptions of the decrepit state of museums in Mongolia, the lack of funding to look after the material properly, not to mention the fact that the government of a developing country like Mongolia has other, more pressing matters to attend to, does not convince me that this is so.
As far as Prokopi is concerned, I came away feeling that the crackdown, though harsh, was deserved. His disinterest regarding Mongolia’s laws is no excuse. Nor is the argument that the rules are unclear and hard to find and, anyway, not enforced – an argument many other traders in this book put forth. His actions clearly betray that he knew these deals were fishy. He willingly took risks, got greedy, overreached, and had the trap slam shut on him. Other readers might not judge him this harshly, and in that sense, Prokopi could not have wished for a better, more balanced documentation of his story. Williams has written a masterful book of suspense and true-crime that is as fair in the portrayal of its protagonists, as it is thorough in the context in which the story is situated. If you enjoyed The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession or The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, you should certainly give this book a read.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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