Photograph by Johannes Eisele, AFP, Getty
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This aerial picture shows the Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert. Roy Chapman Andrews, who could be called the first fossil hunter, mounted a huge expedition to the Gobi Desert in the early 1920s. There, his team found the first dinosaur ever known to science.

Photograph by Johannes Eisele, AFP, Getty

Would you risk prison for a dinosaur fossil? This man did.

The obsession with finding and selling dinosaur fossils lead one hunter into a world he could not escape.

We are all familiar with the trade in drugs or stolen artworks. But what would make someone want to risk life and limb for a fossil? That’s one of the questions Paige Williams has tried to answer in The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for the Ultimate Trophy. As she excavates the story of a young Florida man’s obsession with dinosaur fossils and his escalating hunger for bigger and bigger payouts, Williams uncovers a murky world of smugglers, collectors, and covert black-market transactions. Along the way, she discovers her own obsessions.

Speaking from Cambridge, Massachusetts, she explains how the skeleton of a dinosaur named T. bataar was smuggled into the United States, how an American explorer from the 1920s became the model for Indiana Jones, and what drives wealthy collectors to want to own their very own dinosaur skeleton.

United States of America v One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton is surely one of the most bizarre court cases ever heard in America. What was the prosecution’s case? And who was the defendant?

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There were two court cases that came out of the Tyrannosaurus bataar auction/confiscation. The first was a civil action, which was the federal government’s attempt to claim the skeleton on behalf of the President of Mongolia. Eric Prokopi, the guy my book is about, had a choice between surrendering the skeleton or fighting for it. He believed he was entitled to the dinosaur skeleton and decided to fight for it. A criminal federal case came later.

T. bataar is the Asian cousin of T. rex. It’s very similar in appearance: a large apex predator, a bit shorter than T. rex but longer, with more teeth, and the same nubby little arms. It’s been found significantly only in the Gobi of Mongolia. Prokopi acquired a skeleton of T. bataar from the Gobi, brought it to market in New York City in May 2012, and auctioned it off for a little over $1 million.

Introduce us to the young grifter and dinosaur fanatic from Florida: Eric Prokopi. Explain how he came to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars illegally importing dinosaur fossils from Mongolia.

He started at age five collecting shark teeth on a beach in Venice, Florida. He learned to dive when he was 10 and began bringing up these enormous bones out of rivers and learning how to reconstruct the skeletons of extinct Ice Age megafauna. He began selling his finds because his house became overrun. His parents said, “Look, if you want to keep hunting fossils you have to get rid of some of this stuff.”

The way to get rid of it was to sell fossil teeth and bones, or entire skeletons, at trade shows and online, which then led him to aspire to bigger creatures and bigger payouts. By the time we get to the T. bataar, he was significantly in debt, which is the way many fossil hunters live. They live with very little money and then make a big sale, pay their bills and plug the rest of the money back into the business. By the time he got to the dinosaur he was looking for a significant payout.

A collector you quote calls dinosaur fossils “the ultimate antiquing.” Leonardo di Caprio has a collection; so does Nicolas Cage. What draws people to these things? You need a pretty large house, right?

The person who said that quote was a man named Coleman Burke, the guy who would have taken T. bataar home that day in May 2012 if the auction had gone through. He’s a lawyer and developer in New York City and a great lover of the outdoors. He’s a member of the Explorers Club and a guy who had both the square footage and the disposable income to absorb the purchase of that skeleton.

The typical buyer is someone who might want to put something on a shelf. But there’s this other class of buyer, like Nicolas Cage, Leonardo Di Caprio, or Coleman Burke, who have space and money to buy larger items. Burke was excited about putting the skeleton in his building, which overlooks the Hudson River. It was once a nightclub called “Tunnel.” The ground floor is this cavern space very much like the Natural History Museum. He envisioned the skeleton standing in there and greeting all the people who came into the building.

I asked everybody when I was researching this book, “What is it about these fossils and dinosaurs?” Sometimes they said that it’s the thrill of owning and being able to look at them—anytime they want—rather than going to a museum, these tangible connections to deep time and life on Earth as it once existed in all its glorious, weird, extinct forms. For some people it might be a novelty. Hey, you wanna come see my dinosaur? I’ve seen specimens compared to pieces of art. The press refers to them as the new status symbols.

It is said that George Lucas modelled Indiana Jones on a flamboyant American explorer called Roy Chapman Andrews. Tell us about this larger-than-life character and his 1922 “central Asiatic expedition.”

I am so glad that you asked that question! I could talk about him all day. The Prokopi case would never have happened if Roy Chapman Andrews had not decided to mount a huge expedition to the Gobi in the early 1920s. His team found the first dinosaur ever known to science at a place called Flaming Cliffs. It was this stunning expedition, filled with wondrous discoveries, which made Andrews as famous as any celebrity you can think of today, and famous for science, which is unusual. Usually people are famous for being an actor but he was a famous scientist whose face was recognized everywhere.

The central Asian expedition was a huge undertaking. Even today the Gobi is hard to get to and navigate. When Andrews did it, it was almost impossible. There had been very few expeditions in the area ever, but when they did happen they tended to be on camel or horseback, or on foot. He decided to import Dodge automobiles from America and went in as a car caravan. He took a videographer and photographer with him and some of that stunning and quirky footage is available at the American Museum of Natural History today. He also wrote about his expeditions in the Gobi for the museum, and in a series of best-selling books.

The key location for dinosaur fossils in Mongolia is known as the Flaming Cliffs. Put us on the ground, and describe the country’s importance for collectors and paleontologists.

Flaming Cliffs is one of the key sites in the Gobi, and it has been called a Garden of Eden of paleontology because so many species have been found there and because it shows, as one paleontologist put it, “empires in transition.” Flaming Cliffs is this ancient geological feature that rises up out of the desert. You approach it on flat ground but suddenly there are these canyons and red glowing rocks that are particularly red at dawn and sunset, hence the name.

The fossils are remarkably well preserved. They’re also really beautiful. Because of the groundwaters, the dinosaur bones that settled into them over millennia are this beautiful pearly white or grey, which you don’t see in other places. In the U.S., for example, tyrannosaurus tend to have darker, brown, sometimes almost black bones.

The Mongolian government has called for the return of all dinosaur fossils poached from the country. Yet there are still numerous items at institutions in the U.S. What are the laws regarding fossil collecting and export?

Good question! It depends on the country. The laws vary based on where you are and the breadth of their fossil riches. The U.S. is a fossil-rich country and our export and import laws are that, if you find a fossil on your own property or where you have permission to hunt, you can do anything with it you want. But you can’t import illegally sourced materials.

In Mongolia, you can’t pick up, keep or own a fossil. All fossils are considered national natural resources. So the black market that grows up in some of the countries that ban the fossil trade works around those laws. They smuggle fossils out, which is what happened here.

The story has a happy ending, doesn’t it? Tell us about Bolor Minjin and the "Dinosaur Bus." And what happened to Eric Prokopi?

The story has a happy ending for one half of the characters. [laughs] Dr. Minjin is a Mongolian paleontologist who, for the bulk of her life and career, has lived and studied and worked in New York. She is one of the paleontologists who brought the auction to the attention of the Mongolian Government. The other was Mark Norell, of the American Museum of Natural History.

Mammals were Dr. Minjin’s specialty but she had decided to take an interest in the dinosaurs of the Gobi and Mongolian paleontology in general. She desperately wanted to save Mongolian dinosaurs from poachers and to improve Mongolian paleontology for future generations. For the longest time she couldn’t find out how to get any attention for what she was trying to do—until the Prokopi case came along.

In 2015, three years after T. bataar went to auction, she took a New York City bus into the Gobi. [laughs] It was an old, repurposed American Museum of Natural History bus that was donated and that she raised the money to have shipped to Mongolia. She and a small team took it into the Gobi and rode around talking to children and others about the importance of fossils. She now wants to start a Natural History Museum at the Flaming Cliffs. There’s nothing there, so it would really be something if she could do that!

I don’t think Eric Prokopi would call it a happy ending. Any time one goes to prison it’s hardly ever a happy ending. He’s struggled to get back on his feet but he did, and he now lives in Savannah, Georgia, on a decommissioned WWII navy tugboat, which has been repurposed as a house. He and his second wife have fixed it up gorgeously and now are thinking of getting into—hear me out­—the boatel business!

You spent years researching this story, driving your family, by your own admission, almost to distraction. Why the obsession? And what did you take away from this story?

[Laughs] I love reporting and researching and could do it forever. I became obsessed with the facts of this case and the facts of these lives and all the threads that fed into this story. Obsession takes lots of forms. In Prokopi’s case, it was the fossils. In my case, it was the facts. It was a world I knew nothing about, which is my favorite kind of world to come to know because I like learning about new worlds and peoples’ lives and why they do the things that they do. It was this rich, multi-varied world where I could look at science, art, human behavior, and obsession in all its forms. I could also think about, as a reporter and as a human, this planet we’re living on and how it once existed and its very precarious future.

My takeaway from the story? Be careful, be respectful, don’t break the law. [laughs] I certainly understand obsession because I became obsessed with the story. I understand collectors who need to go out hunting. I understand paleontologists who need to understand one more element of a particular creature’s evolution. I get it; I get that you can’t quit.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.