In 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: "a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton." Eric Prokopi was the man who had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. 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.
Williams’s painstakingly detailed reporting reminds us that events like these are far more complicated than they might seem, and if we want the commercial fossil trade to be anything other than what it currently is, we must understand the intricate pushes and pulls of the industry ... this is where The Dinosaur Artist excels ... details and characters bring home the fact that the challenge of combating fossil smuggling and reforming the trade is truly daunting ... Williams consistently balances...the question of who ought to be able to own natural history, like fossils—offering a fair, balanced, and nuanced treatment of her subjects ... Part of the reason that the Tarbosaurus story is so compelling is that the fossil smuggler was, for once, caught, tried, and served time in jail, while the fossil was sent back. It’s a neat and tidy narrative.
Ms. Williams’s writing is often concise and evocative ... But those characters also leave Ms. Williams’s narrative feeling padded, even at 278 pages ... it’s not clear how another potted biography here advances the story. Ms. Williams’s 89 pages of endnotes, including a lengthy account of the death of Pliny the Elder in A.D. 79, are also symptomatic of runaway research. But the story, when she sticks to it, is gripping and cinematic.
Although the dinosaur is undoubtedly in the details, as it were, the biographies of minor characters occasionally distract from the larger narrative. Especially fascinating, however, are the intertwined roles of paleontologists, collectors, and commercial hunters—all who covet fossils and feel a claim to natural history. In the spirit of The Feather Thief (2018), Williams’ illuminating chronicle questions who has a right to nature.