The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy by Paige Williams

Mix a couple parts Jurassic Park, one part Indiana Jones and Indy Jane, and a dash of the law and you have The Dinosaur Artist. This is the tale of one man’s desire to make a living at selling dinosaur bones. Yet, in his path lies an ongoing debate that has been raging for centuries: Who owns fossils and what are the roles of fossil hunters, paleontologists and collectors? Eric Prokopi is an American “commercial paleontologist” who buys a Mongolian T-rex’s cousin’s skeleton, fixes it up, and tries to sell it at auction. This book takes on a lot: Prokopi’s story, the history of fossil hunting, the landscape of the hobby/ business/ criminal activity, and the international politics behind it.

I read Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino a couple years ago. It a very good book about how the Getty Museum procured its collection of classical art. Obviously, one is about antiquities and the other is about fossils, but both deal with black market looting of priceless, one-of-a-kind objects for the sake of egos, science, and/or beauty. At the heart of both books lies the controversies of “protecting” history, exploiting nations and people, and greed. Different objects, but both take a good look at the ideas of “preserving” history.

Williams winds her story through so many colorful characters and landscapes.  Each with a story of his or her first, the first fossil found…  and the itch of the hunt that strikes and never goes away. She also includes several relatable contemporary allusions and metaphors that help the reader’s understanding of the subject.  The writing did slow down a bit in parts, i.e. in explaining some of the history of Mongolia. But maybe I just preferred the profiles of the  adventuring fossil hunters a little more.

The Dinosaur Hunter starts with controversy then maps the geography of the fossil landscape, from hunters to politics to jealousies and poachers. Williams covers the history of paleontology as well that of natural history museums. There’s even some celebrity sighting: a Cage/ DiCaprio fight over a 67-million-year-old skull of a Tyrannosaurus Bataar. The Dinosaur Artist is a memorable read with great tension over the timeless themes of the hunt, money, and greed.

4 out of 5 stars

Releases September 11th.

Thank you to NetGalley, Hachette Books, and Paige Williams for an advanced copy for review.

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