"Bones of Contention"
A Florida man’s curious trade in Mongolian dinosaurs.
January 28th, 2013
The New Yorker
Natural history goes to auction five or six times a year in America, and one Sunday last May a big sale took place in Chelsea, at the onetime home of the Dia Center for the Arts. The bidding, organized by a company called Heritage Auctions, began with two amethyst geodes that, when paired, resembled the ears of an alert rabbit. Then came meteorites, petrified wood, and elephant tusks; centipedes, scorpions, and spiders preserved in amber; rare quartzes, crystals, and fossils. The fossils ranged from small Eocene swimmers imprinted on rock to the remains of late-Cretaceous dinosaurs. That day, the articulated toe and claw of a Moroccan dinosaur sold for sixty-three hundred dollars. A tyrannosaur tooth—ten and a half inches from root to spike—went for nearly forty thousand.
Along one wall, behind ropes, loomed the skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar. T. bataar, as it is known, was a Tyrannosaurus rex cousin that lived some seventy million years ago, in what is now the Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia. Eight feet tall and twenty-four feet long, the specimen had been mounted in a predatory running position, with its arms out and its jaws open, as if determined to eat Lot No. 49220—a cast Komodo dragon, crouching ten yards away, on blue velvet.
After a German sea-lily fossil sold to a live bidder, for forty thousand dollars, Greg Rohan, Heritage’s president, who had been standing near the lectern, handed the auctioneer a note. The auctioneer announced, “The sale of this next lot will be contingent upon a satisfactory resolution of a court proceeding.” He was talking about the dinosaur, which he called the auction’s “signature item.” Largely intact dinosaur skeletons are not easily found, and this specimen had been advertised as seventy-five per cent complete. “It can fit in all rooms ten feet high,” the auctioneer added. “So it’s also a great decorative piece.”
As the bidding opened, at eight hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, Robert Painter, an attorney from Houston, stood up, a BlackBerry in his hand. Painter is six feet three and forty-two, with dark hair, rimless eyeglasses, and a deep voice. “I hate to interrupt this,” he told the room. “But I have the judge on the phone.” The previous day, Carlos Cortez—a state district judge in Dallas, where Heritage has its headquarters—had signed a temporary restraining order forbidding the company to auction the T. bataar, on the ground that the dinosaur was believed to have been stolen from Mongolia. The judge, defied, was not pleased.
The auction had come to the attention of the Mongolian government the preceding Friday, after Bolortsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian paleontologist who lives in New York, saw a television report about the auction and suspected that the dinosaur had been taken from her country. Bolor, as she is called, discovered that the online auction catalogue listed the item’s provenance as “Central Asia”—a vague term often considered code for Mongolia and China, both of which forbid the commercial export of fossils found within their borders. Other catalogue items, such as the tyrannosaur tooth, openly referred to the Nemegt Formation, a fossil-rich expanse of sandstone and mudstone in the Mongolian Gobi.
Bolor e-mailed Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, an aide to President Tsakhia Elbegdorj. Mongolian dinosaur fossils had appeared on the black market for years, but there had been few, if any, organized efforts to stop their sale. Even though the Mongolians had only two days to intervene in the auction, they decided to try. Bolor enlisted two of the world’s top experts in Mongolian dinosaurs—Mark Norell, the head of the American Museum of Natural History’s paleontology division, and Phil Currie, of the University of Alberta—who wrote open letters of protest. Norell argued, “These specimens are the patrimony of the Mongolian people and should be in a museum in Mongolia.” The letters were distributed to reporters. Online, paleontologists, geologists, students, and Mongolians signed a petition against the auction, adding comments: “Fossils belong in museums where EVERYONE can see and learn from them, not in some rich, fat douchebag’s mansion or in some Wall Street office”; “Mongolian fossils are spectacular . . . selling them as mantelpieces is akin to using the Mona Lisa as a placemat.”
Bolor wrote to Heritage: Where had the T. bataar come from? Did it possess provenance papers? Heritage’s attorney replied, “Although we appreciate your concerns . . . it is our conclusion that no impropriety exists.” He added, “Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is quite a bit older than that.”
The Mongolian government lawyered up, retaining Painter, the Houston attorney. He had experience representing Western mining interests in Mongolia, whose vast, untapped reserves of copper, gold, and coal are at the center of an international scramble. Like most lawyers, he had never handled a case involving a dinosaur, but he drafted the restraining order, got Judge Cortez to sign it, and boarded a plane for New York.
As Painter interrupted the auction, his BlackBerry aloft, the auctioneer eyed him but never broke patter. He called for a bid of nine hundred thousand dollars.
Rohan, Heritage’s president, met Painter in the aisle, and for five seconds they squared off in a quiet little dance, four arms waving. A security guard stepped in. Painter repeated that he had Judge Cortez on the phone. “O.K.—well, you need to walk,” the guard said, escorting Painter to the rear of the auction floor. Outside, on the sidewalk, a small, pro-Mongolia protest had formed, with banners reading “National Heritage Is Not for Sale” and “Return Our Stolen Treasure.”
An attorney for Heritage approached Painter, who handed him his BlackBerry. While the attorney was having an awkward discussion with Judge Cortez, the dinosaur sold to an anonymous phone bidder, for nearly a million dollars.
Heritage brokered the T. bataar on behalf of a thirty-seven-year-old bone hunter named Eric Prokopi, who lives in Florida, a great state for fossils. For roughly the first half of the past fifty million years, the region lay beneath a warm, shallow sea. As land repeatedly surfaced and receded, the remains of marine creatures got mixed up with those of terrestrials, forming one big Ice Age graveyard: sea cows, prehistoric sharks, spike-tailed armadillos the size of refrigerators.
Shark teeth attract kids to fossil hunting because they’re so easy to find. Sharks shed thousands of teeth per year, and have been doing so for eons. The teeth, exposed by erosion and tides, can be as big as a human hand. The largest look like the arrowheads of giants, and can sell for thousands of dollars.
Prokopi, who grew up outside Tampa, is the son of a music teacher and a homemaker. He found his first shark tooth as a small boy, in the late seventies, at nearby Venice Beach. By age ten, he had a diving license. His mother, a competitive swimmer, accompanied him on river expeditions. As he explored underwater, holding a rope, she rode in a canoe, tugging the line if she saw an alligator.
Through fossil clubs and field trips to quarries, Prokopi got to know older hunters who spent their lives beachcombing or standing chest deep in muck, searching for bone. Paleontology books explained what he’d found and taught him what to look for next. When he was in high school, fossils began to take over the family’s house, and around 1990 he started selling them, making eight hundred dollars at his first trade show, in Lakeland. At such events, he bartered with other hunters, who often brought entire trailers filled with specimens. Some fossils were still sheathed in “field jackets”—the lumpy white plaster encasements that excavators apply at dig sites, for safe transport, making the artifacts look like misshapen mummies.
Although some countries had fossil-trade restrictions, or were enacting them, certain dealers proceeded as though there were no rules; they justified their trade, in part, with the idea that exposed fossils, if not collected, disintegrate. Prokopi quickly learned that, when he found something good, someone would buy it. If the business sometimes resembled a black market, it was a small one: nobody seriously imagined getting rich digging up prehistoric bones.
Then, the day before Prokopi turned sixteen, a magnificent T. rex was found weathering out of a cliff near Faith, South Dakota. An amber hunter named Sue Hendrickson, working with the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a company that collects and prepares fossils, had wandered off to explore a bluff as her crew changed a flat tire, and came back with a handful of dinosaur. The team named the T. rex Sue.
A legal fight followed, centering on the Sioux rancher who, for five thousand dollars, had sold Black Hills the right to dig out the dinosaur but whose land, part of an Indian reservation, was being held in federal trust. As the case unfolded in the courts, the movie “Jurassic Park” came out, rebooting dinosaurs in the popular imagination. The rancher eventually won the right to sell Tyrannosaurus Sue. On October 4, 1997, Sotheby’s, in New York, auctioned the fossil; Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History bought it, with sponsorship from Disney and McDonald’s, for an unprecedented $8.4 million.
Hendrickson had found her T. rex the way hunters have always found fossils: by walking around and looking down. In America, the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries have been made in the West, in a swath of exposures from the Canadian border to New Mexico. During the infamous nineteenth-century “bone wars,” between the East Coast paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and O. C. Marsh, scientists encountered dinosaur skeletons “exposed like corpses on a deserted battlefield,” Michael Novacek writes in “Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs.”
Today in the United States, only approved researchers may collect vertebrates on public land, but a hunter who finds a fossil on his property, or on private land where he has permission to dig, can sell it, exhibit it, export it—whatever. After the sale of Tyrannosaurus Sue, a modern gold rush began, and it has not let up. In the summers, the Western snows have barely receded before prospectors arrive, often with private clients who pay to hunt with guides.
Ranchers who had once allowed scientists to explore their land for free began leasing it to the highest bidder. Paleontologists lost out to amateurs with more money, and they lost specimens to vandals and thieves, some of whom went after fossils with sledgehammers. Federal agents have tracked stolen American dinosaurs as far away as Japan. The paleontologist Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says, “The day Sue got auctioned is the day fossils became money.”
Prokopi continued selling fossils through high school and college. He won an academic scholarship to the University of Florida, in Gainesville, where he joined the swim team and earned a degree in engineering, a subject that interested him only insofar as it illuminated the mechanics of, say, how to level a structural foundation or gut-renovate a house. After graduation, he stayed in Gainesville and started his life as a full-time fossil hunter, calling himself a “commercial paleontologist.” He named his company Florida Fossils.
At twenty-eight, he married a SeaWorld dolphin trainer named Amanda Graham—a native Virginian he met through their shared love of diving. For extra income, they “flipped” houses near the college campus. Amanda started an interior-decorating business that sometimes showcased natural-history objects, featuring Eric’s finds and other fossils that they had imported or come across at the two big U.S. trade shows, in Tucson and Denver. They also began using eBay, which allowed merchandise to be moved faster, and, if the participants so chose, with greater anonymity.
If you were mapping the geographic evolution of Prokopi’s inventory, you’d pin Florida to start, then move on to Alabama, Texas, China, Japan, Peru, Morocco, Argentina, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere. He sold sloth claws, elephant jaws, wolf molars, dinosaur ribs—a wide range of anatomical fragments that went, mostly, for between ten and fifty dollars. Increasingly, Florida Fossils got into triple digits, especially when Prokopi started selling dinosaur parts. In the fall of 2011, he sold two Mongolian oviraptor nests for more than three hundred and fifty dollars each, a tyrannosaurus ileum for five hundred and sixty-one dollars, a tyrannosaurus tooth for three hundred and twenty-five dollars, and a tyrannosaurus tail vertebra for four hundred and ten dollars. He built up a 99.7-per-cent-positive rating with eBay customers, who praised his wares as “unusual” and “exquisite.”
By 2010, the Prokopis had a toddler son, Grey, and an infant daughter, Rivers, to support. It was no longer enough to peddle a bone here, a bone there, even as Prokopi supplemented his income by “prepping out” fossils—cleaning and restoring them—and selling the results to small museums and nature centers. His best shot at big money was dinosaurs. The top sites in the American West were largely tied up in federal boundaries and, on the private side, in existing contracts that usually required sizable cuts to ranchers. Only one place on Earth holds big, beautiful T. rex-like dinosaurs in relatively soft sand, in a vast, remote landscape that all but insures privacy.
Mongolia, which is more than twice the size of Texas, borders Russia to the north and China everywhere else. Thirty per cent of Mongolia’s three million people live in or around the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and, despite flashes of new-economy wealth (Hummers, a Louis Vuitton shop), much of the nation subsists in poverty.
The Gobi Desert cuts across southern Mongolia and extends into northern China. The primary locus of dinosaur hunting is the Nemegt Formation. Phil Currie, the Canadian paleontologist, says, “Right now, the Nemegt represents one of the top two dinosaur sites in the world, in terms of diversity of specimens.”
T. bataar, a carnivorous, bipedal dinosaur, lived around seventy million years ago; Russian and Mongolian scientists discovered it in 1946, during an expedition to the Nemegt. The species closely resembles T. rex, which lived at the same time but has been found only in North America. Both had long tails to counterbalance large skulls, and, proportionally, they had the smallest forelimbs of any apex predator. T. bataar was slightly smaller than T. rex, which is like drawing a distinction between a city bus and a school bus: the largest known T. bataar stood ten feet high, was up to forty feet long, and had nearly six dozen huge, spiky teeth, with jaws of crushing torque. T. bataar fed on other dinosaurs—big ones.
We know this because of the fossil record, which exists thanks to all types of hunters but is vetted by scientists, many of whom loathe the sale of fossils but don’t necessarily want to discourage the popular fascination with them, either. “Great ones have yet to be found, so we want people looking for them,” Johnson, the Smithsonian director, says. “But we want a path for the really important ones to loop into science. Right now, that path doesn’t exist. Plenty of collectors say, ‘You’re more than welcome to come to my house and study my fossils.’ But it’s an empty promise. Even if they let you look at something, if they sell it, it might as well not exist.”
Unlike the U.S., most other nations with rich dinosaur deposits—including Argentina, Canada, and China—consider fossils part of their national heritage and oppose or restrict their entry into the private market. Mongolia outlawed the trade in 1924, but bone runners have always operated from the Gobi, because they have found outsiders willing to buy fossils. “The Gobi’s getting hammered,” Mark Norell told me in July, just before leaving for Mongolia. He helped reopen the Gobi to Westerners after Communist rule ended, in the early nineteen-nineties, and since then has dug there at least twenty-two times. “My sites in Mongolia have been clobbered by these slimeballs,” he said of poachers, adding, “People follow you. There’s nomads living out there. You’ll see guys on motorcycles, and guys a kilometre away, looking at you through binoculars.”
Currie, who has worked in Mongolia since 1996, recognizes poached sites by their trash: cigarette wrappers, vodka bottles, junked cars, Super Glue bottles, graffiti. Poachers often mark their sites by carving the date on rocks, and they frequently leave Mongolian money tucked beneath stones—alms to the gods.
Many poachers take teeth and claws first, because they’re the easiest to transport. Other thieves hack their way up the vertebral column in pursuit of the skull, the most prized body part. A fossil that has been separated from its geological context—such as location and stratigraphic position, which poachers do not document—becomes far less significant to science.
Once a smuggler gets fossils out of the country, the shipment need only make it past customs. Smugglers don’t always succeed. A few years ago in Chicago, agents X-rayed an express-mail shipment of “shoes,” with a declared value of fifty dollars, that turned out to be the skulls of Chinese dinosaurs. In Los Angeles, agents seized the fossil of a Chinese oviraptor nest after it sold, via the English auction house Bonhams & Butterfields, for more than four hundred thousand dollars. (The buyer cancelled his bid.) The nest had been advertised as featuring visible, preserved embryos, but it actually was a composite: the seller had bought the eggs separately, then implanted them in a slab of imported red sandstone. In late 2011, the U.S. repatriated the eggs.
The T. bataar skull entered the country, amid other fossils, via U.P.S., on March 27, 2010. By then, Prokopi had established a business arrangement with Chris Moore, a hunter on the famed Jurassic Coast of England and a well-known dealer at the Tucson and Denver shows. Moore had shipped these component fossils to Prokopi in three crates weighing nearly three thousand pounds. The customs forms listed the shipment’s country of origin as Great Britain, its over-all value as fifteen thousand dollars, and, on an invoice, its contents as “2 large rough (unprepared) fossil reptile heads, 6 boxes of broken fossil bones, 3 rough (unprepared) fossil reptiles, 1 fossil lizard, 3 rough (unprepared) fossil reptiles,” and “1 fossil reptile skull.” Customs sent it on through.
Prokopi spent the next year and a half cleaning the T. bataar fossils, gluing them together, fabricating bones out of resin to replace missing pieces (an accepted practice, even in museums), and building a custom-welded frame. For years, the Prokopis had prepped fossils on their kitchen floor and in their garage, but in May, 2011, they built a five-thousand-square-foot workshop in their back yard, and they assembled the T. bataar there. In early 2012, they laid the bones in formation on the workshop floor and shot a photograph from overhead: a large dinosaur curled in a loose fetal position, with Eric kneeling beside it, hands on hips, smiling up at the camera. The photograph was posted on the Facebook page of Amanda’s home-design business, Everything Earth (“Where nature is art”); prospective buyers were urged to e-mail for more information.
In February, Prokopi took the T. bataar to the Tucson show and displayed the legs and skull, along with the photograph of the full skeleton on the workshop floor. When the dinosaur failed to sell, he turned to auction houses that handled natural-history specimens. He had relationships with I. M. Chait, Heritage, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams. At least one house rejected the T. bataar, but Heritage took it. To make the spring-auction deadline, Prokopi stayed up for ninety hours straight to finish the prep work and the mounting. The specimen was shipped to Texas, to be photographed for the Heritage catalogue, and then to New York.
Other Prokopi projects, meanwhile, were acquired for other auctions. A saurolophus, a duck-billed dinosaur that, like T. bataar, has been found only in Mongolia, went to I. M. Chait, in Beverly Hills, with a listed provenance of Central Asia. The catalogue copy noted, “To this day, barely more than 10 skulls are known, and this is one of only a handful of complete skeletons ever found or mounted.” The estimated gavel price was between a hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand dollars. The saurolophus didn’t sell. Two weeks later, the T. bataar sold to the anonymous phone bidder.
The Mongolians began preparing for a courtroom battle. Commercial hunters, meanwhile, couldn’t believe that anyone had so openly tried to sell a major Mongolian dinosaur. At the Denver fossil show, in September, I stopped by the booth of Mike Triebold, a veteran Colorado hunter who has been working with the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists to find a way for academics and legitimate commercial hunters to collaborate. “I’ve got about thirty employees and millions of dollars invested in my business,” he said. “The last thing I’m gonna do is bring in an illegal fossil.”
Bob Detrich, another hunter, was at Triebold’s booth, and he said, “My first question when I saw it in the catalogue was ‘How is this even possible?’ ”
Triebold noted that Mongolian dinosaur bones had been on the market for years, but added, “It’s been up to and including skulls. There’s never been a big, whole T. rex-y skeleton. This is a big, sexy dinosaur. It’s so over the top that somebody finally said, ‘All right, wait a minute. You guys gotta stop this.’ ”
The price of the T. bataar, with Heritage’s premium, came to $1,052,500. The transaction was put on hold until the provenance could be worked out. Dismantled and crated, the fossil was trucked to the Cadogan Tate Fine Art storage facility, in Sunnyside, Queens. President Elbegdorj, meanwhile, formally asked the United States to investigate. The Americans—mindful, perhaps, of staying in the good graces of a country poised to become a mining giant—granted Mongolia’s request.
Although Heritage continued to defend the sale, it coöperated with the investigation by allowing a team of paleontologists to assess the dinosaur. On the morning of June 5th, three scientists met at the warehouse in Queens: Bolor Minjin, Phil Currie, and Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, in Ulaanbaatar. The scientists found more than two hundred bones in open crates or laid out neatly on tables, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
It was something of a miracle that the dinosaur existed at all. Nature heavily skews the odds against an animal becoming a fossil—most simply decompose. But this T. bataar had somehow been buried quickly in sediment, which then turned into rock. Fossils absorb ground minerals specific to their location, giving them a geochemical signature. Mongolian dinosaurs are slightly radioactive, owing to the presence of uranium in the Gobi; the bones, which have a distinctive off-white color, resemble those of the freshly dead.
Dozens of T. bataar skeletons have been exhumed, but there’s still much to learn about the species and how it lived. Why, for instance, was T. bataar so tremendously overrepresented in the Gobi? “It makes no sense,” Currie says. “You can’t have an ecosystem where there are more carnivores than herbivores.” And there are anatomical mysteries: just what evolutionary purpose did those tiny arms serve?
Paleontologists usually handle fossils bare-handed, but at the warehouse the scientists were given purple synthetic gloves to wear as they worked. Currie and the others spent the day examining the T. bataar, piece by piece, comparing the bones’ size, color, and condition with what they knew about the species from other fossils. They determined that seventy-five per cent of the dinosaur was composed of original bone, as advertised. The creature was two-thirds grown. The ivory coloration matched that of other Nemegt fossils. The scientists concurred: the dinosaur was Mongolian.
Two weeks later, in downtown Manhattan, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York sued for custody of the specimen, on behalf of the nation of Mongolia. Procedure required that an arrest warrant be issued against the dinosaur itself, so the action became known as United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton.
On June 22nd, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent a cargo truck to the warehouse in Queens and confiscated the dinosaur. As Bolor Minjin, Robert Painter, and the rest of the Mongolia contingent watched, elated, from behind a chain-link fence, Homeland Security Investigations agents loaded four large crates onto the truck. They then took the bones to an undisclosed location.
Prokopi hired a pair of attorneys who have represented dealers of contested antiquities: Michael McCullough, in New York, and Peter Tompa, in Washington. Prokopi had sixty days to decide whether to surrender the dinosaur or make a legal claim for it. If the deal went through, he stood to make about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, after the other parties took their share, and he was clearly reluctant to give this up. Indeed, Prokopi had entertained the idea of brokering a quiet deal with the Mongolians. Four days after the auction, in an e-mail conversation with a Heritage employee, he wrote, “Although I am sure that everything with this specimen is legal as far back as I can tell, I do know just about all of the people involved in the business of central asian fossils, and could offer ideas and help to make permanent changes that would nearly eliminate the black market and benefit all sides. If the mongolian president is indeed only interested in getting to the bottom of the sources, and wants to look good for his people, I think I can help him do that if he is willing to cooperate and compromise. If he only wants to take the skeleton and try to put an end to the black market, he will have a fight and will only drive the black market deeper underground.”
Publicly, Prokopi said nothing about how he had acquired the dinosaur, or how it had wound up in England before coming to the U.S. He insisted that he was not a thief. “I’m just a guy . . . trying to support my family—not some international bone smuggler,” he said, in his sole statement to the media. “If I believed it wasn’t legal for me to have or sell this dinosaur, why would I have offered it in such a public format? The lost sale of this dinosaur has irreparably devastated my family financially, it has cost several people their jobs, taken an emotional toll on my wife and two young children and damaged my reputation as a commercial paleontologist. . . . What will we tell our kids? How will we keep going? I’m headed toward total financial ruin.”
In Gainesville, the Prokopis live in a historic, plantation-style house called Serenola. Built in 1935, it is white clapboard, with black shutters and four Corinthian columns. The Prokopis got the house for free six years ago, as a derelict property; it was in such bad repair, and so full of filth and feces, that when Amanda first toured it she had to step outside to vomit. But the Prokopis saw money in it. They loaded the house onto flatbeds and moved it a mile down the road to nine acres that they owned, and then restored it themselves, foundation to roof, adding a Viking stove and a fifty-thousand-gallon saltwater pool. They wound up with a showplace and decided to keep it.
We met there one Wednesday in August. The property faced a four-lane highway, but Serenola was tucked behind a brick wall and a modest electric gate. The surrounding marsh, shrieking cicadas, and Spanish moss—hanging like frayed gray scarves, not a breeze to stir it—made the property feel almost secluded. Clouds that had blackened a far quadrant of the sky pulsed with lightning.
The Prokopis answered the door together. Amanda, a shiny-haired blonde, wore black from head to toe, her wrists roped in silver bracelets. Eric, who is tall, dark-haired, and deeply tanned, with a swimmer’s shoulders, was dressed casually—polo shirt, camouflage cargo shorts, and flip-flops. He said little, which, Amanda explained, was typical. Once, during a dive trip to Mexico, someone asked Eric what he did for a living. When he said, “I sell fossils,” the person answered, “You sell faucets?” and proceeded to talk about faucets. Prokopi let it go. “I have to pull things out of him sometimes,” Amanda told me.
Their two children, both towheads, came downstairs. Their son, who is five, led everyone to the family room, opened the deep drawers of a reproduction Colonial bureau, and showed off his toys—dinosaurs, jumbled together, snout upon tail, in a plastic mass grave. “Guess what this one is,” he said several times, blurting out the species. How do you know all the names? I asked. “Because I’m a scientist,” he said.
We sat at the dining-room table, which the Prokopis had made from the slats of champagne barrels. The house was filled with vintage objects: repurposed corbels and bricks, bone-white corals alongside mercury glass. Amanda adheres to a decorating principle of “big mirrors, lots of lamps, and something sparkly” in every room. “Global Chic Meets Plantation Elegance,” the Gainesville Sun put it, in a 2010 article about Serenola. (Eric “likes to do laps” in the Olympic-size pool, the paper reported, “when he’s not diving Florida’s rivers or setting off on business trips to Bali or Mongolia.”)
About three weeks before my visit, Prokopi had made an official claim for the T. bataar. To win the case, he would have to prove legal ownership. Although people in paleontology circles had been speculating about how the fossil had been taken out of Mongolia—I had been hearing that some fossils crossed the border hidden inside shipments of coal—Prokopi declined, on the advice of his attorneys, to discuss specifics. He told me that he had gone into the fossil business because he was drawn to “the treasure-hunting mentality” and to “the thrill.” He added, “I used to keep everything. Now I don’t keep anything. I enjoy having it for a time and then move on.”
So far, no evidence had emerged proving that Prokopi had spent time in Mongolia digging for the T. bataar or other dinosaurs, although his eBay account featured more than a hundred items from the country, and he had sold higher-end Gobi pieces at auction. His connection to Mongolia had “started with Tucson,” he said, referring to the trade fair, which takes place every February. “And that’s probably as far as I can go with that right now.”
Amanda genially jumped in: “People come around at the shows and want to trade for stuff, just like baseball cards. So your inventory evolves that way.”
“There’s always a lot of unprepared stuff available,” Eric said. “I was getting better at mounting specimens and doing big projects, and that’s where a lot of the money is. When you buy it, it’s not necessarily worth that much. It’s the work that you put into it that creates the value.”
“It’s like the paint in the ‘Mona Lisa,’ ” Amanda said. “It’s really the same thing.” She then compared fossil preparation to renovating houses. The T. bataar looked “awesome now, but it took years. And it took being up all night and being broke all the time to get to this point.”
A major fossil is “a good investment,” Eric said. “You can get a good return in the end, and it’s interesting and fun.” But when “you’re struggling to make the sale, and then it doesn’t happen when you’re expecting it, it’s difficult.”
“It’s like rebuilding a house and watching it burn down,” Amanda said.
“Renovating a house and putting tons of money into it, and the government coming and seizing it before you can sell it,” Eric said.
They offered a tour of the property. In the back yard, where the T. bataar had been assembled, the workshop bays stood open. Huge industrial fans rearranged the soupy air. An employee, a University of Florida archeology student, was using a pneumatic tool to clean a chunk of Wyoming stegosaurus. There were boxes full of bone fragments and dim old bottles fished from rivers, and a flat-bottomed military boat that, Eric said, “doesn’t get used much anymore.”
Inside the house was a tall antique case that, according to Amanda, once displayed wedding gowns at Sears. It now held an ankylosaurid skull and other fossils. “Mostly casts,” Eric said. Brilliant corals were arranged in glass-fronted cabinets, in the manner of an apothecary shop. “This is all inventory,” Amanda said. “These are from all around the world.” On an end table was a tortoiseshell with an elaborate pattern. “This is what?” Amanda asked Eric. “A radiated tortoise?” The radiated tortoise is most commonly found in Madagascar, I subsequently discovered, and is an endangered species. (Prokopi later told me that he’d bought his from someone who works at an American zoo, but he declined to elaborate.)
“The stuff in our house evolves all the time,” Eric said.
Upstairs, in one of the children’s rooms, was the framed auction photo of a tyrannosaurus skull, dated March, 2007. The skull closely resembled that of T. bataar, but Amanda didn’t want to talk about it, except to say that their son was conceived on the weekend of that auction. “We were celebrating,” she said. (I. M. Chait sold a T. bataar skull that month, to a private collector, for nearly three hundred thousand dollars.)
A while later, after a walk in a nearby nature preserve, we were back at the champagne-barrel table. Eric asked a surprising question: “One thing I was wondering is if any of these paleontologists you’ve talked to have given their argument of why paleontology is important.” Fossils are “just basically rocks,” he said. “It’s not like antiquities, where it’s somebody’s heritage and culture and all that.”
Amanda changed the subject to a television program she had liked, on the Discovery Channel, about whether mermaids exist. But Eric persisted. “Where do you draw the line?” he said. “I don’t think it can ever be black and white. You can’t legislate every single species or fossil.” He had been twisting a scrap of paper and shoving it through the slats of the table. Amanda took it away from him.
Heritage Auctions was founded in Dallas, in 1976, by a pair of rare-coin dealers. With satellite offices in Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Manhattan, and Europe, Heritage bills itself as the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer, and over the decades it has branched into comics, movie posters, jewelry, books, fine art, and wine, among other things. Last year, the company sold more than eight hundred million dollars’ worth of items.
Heritage got online early, in 1996. Rohan, its president, told me, “We thought, Oh, the Internet: interesting. We don’t think anybody will ever do any real business on it, but maybe we should spend a couple million dollars and build a whammy-jammy Web site and load it full of content for coin collectors.” That venture led to online auctions, which coincided with the explosive popularity of eBay. Rohan said that eBay “did for auctions what Fidelity did for stocks—took it down to the Everyman.”
Rohan was telling me this in late July, in a parlor of a Southampton bed-and-breakfast where he was vacationing with his wife. He had bumped into Matt Rubinger, who heads Heritage’s luxury-accessories division, and brought him along to our meeting. Rohan is fifty-one, lean, and six feet one; in khakis, a navy Izod, blue leather loafers, and a canvas belt embroidered with sailboats, he appeared ready to tack. Rubinger, twenty-four, had a Gatsby look: a summer suit with a white, open-collared shirt. I asked him what his clients collect. Rohan answered for him: “Two-hundred-thousand-dollar handbags.” Rubinger added that vintage Hermès bags were the most popular items. “It’s a new, new market,” he said.
Natural history accounts for “very little” of Heritage’s sales, Rohan told me. Still, the T. bataar deal would have yielded a six-figure commission. Heritage was now “out of it,” in any case. “It really is an issue between the consigner and Mongolia,” Rohan said. “We’ve extricated ourselves.”
It had been that easy. Black-market fossils have regularly been sold through some of the world’s finest auction houses, but auctioneers, including eBay, have not been held accountable for their role. When I asked Rohan why Heritage had accepted the T. bataar, he said, “Because the person who consigned it had a good reputation over decades, and because he warrantied, in writing, that he had clear title. It was his to do with as he saw fit.” Did he have any regrets? “It’s annoying that I had to spend a lot of money on legal fees, dealing with the issue,” he said. A few minutes later, he thought of one more thing: Mongolia’s interference had scared away buyers. Without the controversy, he said, the dinosaur “would’ve brought a much, much higher price.”
The head of Heritage’s natural-history division was David Herskowitz, a well-known broker in the mineral and fossil world. In 2011, I called Herskowitz about a Dallas auction that featured a “fighting pair” of Jurassic dinosaurs from Wyoming. When I asked him how natural-history objects had entered the American fine-arts auction market, Herskowitz credited himself. “It all started by chance,” he said. “I was importing and exporting gemstones, going down to South America and buying emeralds, when the Soviet Union fell apart and we had a free market. I heard there were good gemstones to be had in Russia, so I went there and bought topaz and emeralds and amber.” An appraiser in New York helped him grade the stones, one of which encased a prehistoric fly. “I said, ‘How could a fly get inside a gemstone?’ I didn’t realize amber was actually fossilized tree resin. The appraiser said, ‘Some people actually collect this.’ ” A jeweller sold the amber on Herskowitz’s behalf, for three hundred and twenty-five dollars. “And I thought, O.K., wow, I’m gonna load up the truck.” He returned to Russia and paid a hundred and seventy-five dollars for a load of amber pieces with insects embedded in them. Bonhams later sold the amber, he said, for more than seven thousand dollars. “Fossils are perfect for auction because auctions are there for treasures and things you don’t see in a store every day,” he told me. “If you’re a fossil collector, where are you gonna buy your fossils? If you find a T. rex, where are you gonna sell it?”
Museums feed the market, up to a point. Established institutions discriminate among sources when acquiring fossils, but newer ones sometimes don’t. Natural-history museums that are popping up in China, Japan, and the Middle East have been accused of being willing to buy from anyone. They want dinosaurs and mammals, Herskowitz told me, while individual collectors prefer smaller pieces. “Not many people have a house big enough for a dinosaur,” he explained. “The most popular stuff is the stuff you can put on your shelf, like meteorites, trilobites, dinosaur eggs, and dinosaur bones. Like a nice vertebra—you can put it on your shelf and say, ‘Look, that’s a T. rex vertebra.’ ”
The man who was prepared to pay more than a million dollars for the T. bataar is Coleman Burke, a Manhattan real-estate developer and lawyer in his seventies. His friends call him Coley. He is tall and trim, with wispy white hair, and on the day we met (reluctantly, on his part—his bid, after all, had been anonymous) he had on khakis, Topsiders, a checked shirt, and a brown leather belt studded with silver fish. It was late August, and he had recently returned from the midsummer encampment of the Bohemian Club, in California; he was now getting ready to go fly-fishing in Idaho—a trip that he and friends have taken annually for the past forty-five years. Burke mentioned his service on various environmental boards and his role as a trustee of the natural-history museum at Yale, his alma mater, but he kept returning to the topics of geology and rivers. “I’ve been going down rivers all my life,” he said.
In 1995, he and a five-member crew rafted down the Santa Cruz River, in Patagonia, inspired by a journey that Charles Darwin had tried to make in 1834. Had Darwin not turned back, he might have reached Argentina’s spectacular bone beds, a sight that captivated Burke. During the Santa Cruz trip, and others to Patagonia and the American West, Burke’s interest in dinosaur fossils intensified. He began hunting fossils and funding expeditions, to the extent that his friends kidded him about it. Six years ago, at a party for his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary (theme: “Joy and Mischief”), a tuxedoed pianist jokingly serenaded him about dinosaurs, with lyrics set to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Burke told me, “People say, ‘How’s the archeology going?,’ and I say, ‘Oh, that’s not my bag.’ If it’s not a hundred million years old, I don’t do it. I call it the ultimate antiquing.”
Burke’s company, Waterfront New York, occupies a city block at Twelfth Avenue and West Twenty-eighth Street. An operator-run elevator cage delivered me to the seventh floor, and then Burke and I climbed a tight spiral staircase to a window-walled office reminiscent of a crow’s nest, with views of the Hudson and New Jersey, where Burke grew up. On the observation deck was a tarp-covered signal light, which Burke, an ex-Navy lieutenant, likes to flash at passing ships. His walls held framed photos of Western badlands, vintage maps of South America, and an Explorers Club membership certificate. A Giganotosaurus carolinii skull—a cast, he quickly pointed out—occupied half the eastern wall, dwarfing an upright piano that he often plays.
“I’m a complete amateur,” he kept saying, but his fossil hobby has not been fruitless. A decade ago in Argentina, a Burke crew found a new dinosaur species that is now considered one of the southernmost carnivores on record. The creature was named Orkoraptor burkei, in his honor. A few years later, the Explorers Club honored him and a Drexel University geologist for finding, also in Argentina, the largest dinosaur femur ever discovered.
Burke, for all his hunting, has never owned a major fossil. “I’ve got a couple of bones lying around, but nothing big,” he told me. In May, he saw a newspaper item about the upcoming T. bataar auction. He went to the preview, and the moment he saw the dinosaur he wanted to buy it. Maybe the T. bataar could be displayed on the ground floor of his company’s headquarters; later, perhaps, it could be in a museum. He did not notice where the specimen was from, he told me. “Could’ve been the jungles of Sarawak,” he said. “I wasn’t focussed on that at all. It was a well-prepared specimen. They said it was seventy-five to eighty per cent complete.” He added, “I can assure you, I’d have called in some experts long before I parted with one thin dime, to go down there and check each bone, and make sure I could get to seventy-five or eighty per cent.”
On the day of the auction, Burke bid by phone from his house in Westchester County; to his surprise, he won. “It was a lark,” he said. He has since withdrawn his bid.
United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton went to court in early September, in lower Manhattan, with U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel presiding. Castel has adjudicated cases involving accused mobsters (John Gotti, Jr.) and cases involving rappers (Kanye West) but never one with a party from the late Cretaceous. “I stand to be educated,” he said. “I’m not going to claim that I have dinosaur arrests presented to me with any frequency.”
Prokopi was not present. The purpose of the hearing was to set deadlines for determining whether the case would go to trial, and it went on for about an hour. Castel wanted to know who Prokopi was. A commercial paleontologist, one of Prokopi’s attorneys answered, adding, “He collects fossils and he builds dinosaurs out of them.”
“How did he acquire it?” the judge said, meaning the T. bataar.
“He purchased it,” the attorney said.
“Where did he purchase it?”
“From dealers who sell dinosaur parts.”
“Where are they located?”
“Some of them are in Japan, I believe,” the attorney said. “I don’t know where all of them are.”
Prokopi’s team had claimed that the T. bataar had come into the country in three separate shipments. Now they were saying four—and that the specimen had been assembled from the bones of a number of dinosaurs.
“You’re telling me that what was being auctioned did not come from one once-upon-a-time living creature?” the judge said at one point.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” the attorney said. The dinosaur was soon being referred to as a “Frankenstein model.”
The prosecutors, who had said that they were “loath to take” Prokopi’s word on anything at this point, informed the judge that a team of paleontologists had examined the bones and concluded that they had derived mostly from one creature. But this didn’t matter much, anyway, since all the bones in question were certainly T. bataar and, therefore, certainly Mongolian.
Isn’t it possible, the judge had asked, that T. bataar lived elsewhere on Earth? Aren’t scientific discoveries made all the time?
One of the assistant U.S. attorneys, Martin Bell, assured Castel that the scientific evidence all but confirmed that the bones were Mongolian.
At one point, the judge asked, “Any idea how large this dinosaur is, when fully assembled?”
About twenty-four feet long and eight feet high, Bell answered.
“So it would fit nicely in my courtroom,” the judge said.
A few weeks later, at the annual fossil show in Denver, everybody was talking about the T. bataar case. Dealers were hoping that the drama wouldn’t lead to new legislation making all U.S. fossils off-limits to commercial hunters. Paleontologists, meanwhile, hoped for stronger, clearer regulations or formalized collaboration between scientists and dealers. Johnson, the Smithsonian director, was attending the fair, and over breakfast he told me, “The commercial guys range from people who couldn’t give a shit about what they’re selling and the people who really would’ve been scientists if they’d had a good education.”
We went over to the Merchandise Mart, the show’s main venue. Johnson has always kept amicable relationships with both the academic and the commercial side of the fossil world, and he wanted to stop by the booths of friends. Though shady deals have been known to go down in back rooms or parking lots, I wanted to see if anyone was openly selling dinosaur fossils from countries that forbid their export.
On one dealer’s table lay three raptors from China. Bones and beaks and claws were folded in red and brown sandstone, as in a bas-relief. One was priced at twelve thousand dollars, the two others at twenty-five thousand apiece. The dealer said that he had collected them ten years ago, when it was legal. (“Classic answer,” Johnson said.) At another booth, we saw fossilized pinecones from Argentina. (“Those have always been illegal.”) At another: sabre-toothed-cat skulls. (“Chinese.”) The legal and the illicit were all jumbled together. Johnson compared the situation to finding marijuana nestled among parsley and cilantro at the grocery store. “That’s the caveat-emptor part that I don’t like,” he said. “What’s colliding here is the potential for kids to get excited about science and the weird spectre of some of this stuff being tainted.”
I stopped at a booth selling Chinese and Mongolian fossils and casts, and asked the dealer how he got them. “As long as you go through the proper channels, you’re fine,” he said. “Grease the right politicians’ palms and stuff comes out. You gotta pay off the right guys.”
Overhearing this, a woman browsing at his table said, “I know all about that—I’m from New Jersey.”
As I browsed at the booth of a man selling fossils that had been quarried in Germany, I overheard him say that someone “who works about fourteen hours a day might, once in his lifetime, find something.” Some quarry owners, he went on, “don’t pay well. If a worker finds something, he can get ten times more on the black market.”
Chris Moore, who had shipped Prokopi the T. bataar fossils, was listed in the show’s directory as a vender. But Moore didn’t show up. He was digging fossil fish in Scotland, an associate of his told me, and had “hit big.”
The Prokopis are not fond of New York—“We don’t get it,” Amanda says—but on the day that the paleontological team inspected the T. bataar Eric flew there to unpack and repack the bones, rather than entrust the job to others. He and some of the Mongolians happened to be staying at the same La Quinta Inn, in Queens. The Mongolians didn’t know what Prokopi looked like, but, when one of them overheard a man in the hotel lobby talking on his cell phone about a dinosaur, he quietly took a photograph. It showed Prokopi, in jeans and boots, sitting on a sofa and holding a paper cup.
Over the summer, the photograph was passed around in Mongolia as investigators there looked into whether Prokopi had ever visited the country. A Mongolian paleontologist gave a sworn police statement saying that, in June, 2009, Prokopi had paid him fifty dollars a day to help him dig dinosaurs for a week or so in the Gobi. They travelled into the desert in a Land Cruiser, with a guide, following a map that Prokopi had of known dinosaur sites. A search of customs and hotel registries indicated that Prokopi had also visited Mongolia in 2008 and 2011. On at least one of the trips, a Mongolian source told me, he shared a hotel room in Ulaanbaatar with Chris Moore. (Moore, through his New York attorney, declined to comment for this article.)
Investigators focussed on the Gobi guide, who, according to the Mongolian paleontologist’s statement, owned an “antique museum, a private museum,” and had bragged that he had hung out with Prokopi in the States. Investigators searched the guide’s home and confiscated a computer, on which they found a 2008 letter to a fossil buyer in Japan. The letter, which was incomplete, began, “Dear Butts.” It continued, in part, “I told people that I would buy a head of Tarbosaur”—a T. bataar—“and I offered high price for any size. . . . Following my offer many expeditions went to countryside.” The letter included a price list: forty thousand dollars for the head of a velociraptor, forty thousand for the head of a T. bataar, five thousand for the claws of a T. bataar. The letter informed “Butts” that he owed thirty-seven thousand six hundred dollars and would need to pay fifty per cent up front before receiving any more shipments. “People are getting more and more cautions [sic] here,” the letter continued. “In Mongolia the price [of] everything is rising.” The letter-writer added, “We have been in business cooperation for many years. You know that I don’t do temporary business. I do see the future when dealing with people.”
If the letter’s author was indeed the Gobi guide, there is no more future to speak of. He died in 2011—of illness, a source in the fossil trade told me.
There is a fossil dealer living in Japan named Hollis Butts. He would communicate with me only by e-mail, and he denied any connection with the T. bataar bones, though he said that he had done other work with Prokopi. Butts identified the Gobi guide as a fossil supplier with whom he had done business, but he said that their relationship had “finished well before 2007.” When asked about the 2008 letter to “Butts,” he said, “I suspect it was a letter to someone else, with ‘Mr. Butts’ written on top.”
By fall, federal authorities in New York had fattened their case. They had discovered that, on one fossil shipment, Prokopi had changed the country of origin from Mongolia to Japan. Scientists from a host of nations had issued statements saying that the T. bataar could have come only from Mongolia. An inspection of customs records revealed that the specimen was not Prokopi’s first contested dinosaur. In May, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security had stopped a shipment described first as a “sample of craft rock,” and then as a “fossil replica,” which turned out to be a Chinese microraptor. When the government seized the fossils, Prokopi had complained, in a letter, that he had “$1,000 invested in this item” and claimed that the mixup could likely be attributed to the shipper’s poor English.
Federal agents in the T. bataar investigation obtained access to Prokopi’s AOL account, and found numerous e-mail exchanges with business associates that centered on the buying, selling, and prepping of “Tarbos” and “Mongol fossils.” The agents also confiscated the saurolophus—the duck-billed dinosaur that had failed to sell at the Chait auction in early May. Prokopi’s civil attorneys advised him to get a criminal lawyer.
Meanwhile, in Mongolia, several suspects were detained, including one of the Gobi guide’s relatives. Interpol was now involved. The Mongolian public had taken a strong interest in the T. bataar. When Robert Painter, the Houston attorney, travelled to Ulaanbaatar to meet with President Elbegdorj, a TV station interviewed him for half an hour—the segment aired live, without commercial breaks.
Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, one of the Mongolians who had helped launch the campaign to save the fossil, told me over Skype that government officials in Ulaanbaatar were thinking of the T. bataar case “as a way to clean out our house.” She noted, “T. bataar is actually fighting for our democracy. We’re going to use it to fight corruption. T. bataar will change lots of things in Mongolia if it comes back.”
And if it doesn’t?
“Even if it doesn’t, we will hunt down the pipeline.”
Over the summer, she had been elected to Parliament and named minister of culture. Dinosaur tourism, as yet only a concept in Mongolia, now fell within her jurisdiction.
“People said, ‘Why do you need to study dinosaurs?’ ” she told me. “I said, ‘There’s so much mining going on in the Mongolian Gobi, and there are so many dinosaurs. You need proper policies.’ I needed to know how to protect them and make museums for them.”
Mongolians have never been widely exposed to paleontology, despite the rich bone beds. The country’s only natural-history museum, in Ulaanbaatar, is an unattractive, poorly kept, Soviet-era tomb. Bolor Minjin can imagine the T. bataar inaugurating a new scientific era. She told me, “I hope the return of the T. bataar skeleton will generate enthusiasm among Mongolians, and that they will urge the government to build new museums and train the next generation of paleontologists.”
Early on the morning of October 17th, a Wednesday, about two dozen federal agents and sheriff’s deputies arrived at Serenola, got Prokopi out of bed, and arrested him on three counts involving smuggling. Amanda and the children were kept upstairs as he was handcuffed and led away. Then she drove the kids to school.
The agents spent the day searching the house and the workshop. They packed fossils, electronics, business papers, and other items into cardboard boxes stamped “EVIDENCE.” Late in the morning, a U.P.S. truck happened to arrive, and for Prokopi the timing could not have been worse. The four-hundred-pound delivery was from I. M. Chait, and contained the bones of another dinosaur: a Mongolian oviraptor.
Eric and Amanda put up Serenola as collateral to free him on bond, and by late afternoon he was home. He had surrendered his passport. On Sunday night, he flew to New York and checked into the Fairfield Inn & Suites, in Times Square. The next morning, he dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt, and a red tie, and went downtown, to Duane Street, to meet with his criminal lawyer, Georges Lederman. At two o’clock, they entered a fifth-floor magistrate’s courtroom, Prokopi carrying a soft-sided briefcase and looking distressed.
When his case was called, he took a seat next to Lederman at the defense’s table, in a high-backed leather chair. His crow’s-feet crinkled whenever he murmured a response to one of Lederman’s whispered questions. Martin Bell, the lead prosecutor in the criminal case, asked the judge to raise the bond to six hundred thousand dollars. The judge looked at the pretrial-services forms and noted that Prokopi had fifteen hundred dollars in his checking account and seven hundred in cash. A background search had turned up two traffic citations. Prokopi had been married for a decade and had a stable residence and two young children. “Is there really a risk that he’ll leave the country?” the judge asked.
Bell said that Prokopi was sitting on about “half a million dollars’ worth of dinosaur fossils” and had powerful connections overseas. The judge asked if there was some sort of underground market in dinosaurs that he wasn’t aware of. “I thought they were sold at auction,” he said. Bell told him that the international black market in fossils has been able to “hide in plain sight,” and that trafficking “far exceeds” the current efforts of law enforcement.
They went back and forth for nearly an hour. The judge ordered that Amanda also surrender her passport. He ordered Prokopi not to travel beyond northern Florida once he got home, and he raised the bond to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
Two months later, on December 27th, Prokopi returned to New York and pleaded guilty to customs-related crimes that carried a maximum seventeen-year sentence and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The plea agreement required that he abandon all claims on the T. bataar and the duck-billed dinosaur, and on four more Mongolian and Chinese dinosaurs to which federal prosecutors could now connect him: two oviraptors and two more T. bataars, one of them believed to be somewhere in Great Britain.
“Tell me what you did,” the judge said to Prokopi.
Prokopi responded that he had instructed an associate in China to undervalue one shipment, and had imported fossils with “vague” and “misleading” labels.
“So you mislabelled it to make sure it would be imported?” the judge said.
“Right,” Prokopi said.
Nothing more was revealed about how his dinosaur business worked: about who had dug the original T. bataar, or when, or how it had been removed from Mongolia. The judge set the sentencing hearing for April, and court was adjourned.
“My client is radioactive when it comes to being able to earn a living in his business,” Lederman had told the court at Prokopi’s arraignment. In fact, a dealer, once tarnished, is not necessarily finished. Convicted hunters have been known to return directly to the field. In Prokopi’s case, Mongolia will be out of the question. But the Florida waters and quarries are still full of Ice Age bones. At the start of 2013, eBay alone had more than forty thousand fossils, rocks, and minerals for sale.
Heritage Auctions, for its part, has reorganized its natural-history department. Greg Rohan, the company president, told me that it plans to continue selling fossils, but added, “We’re going to want to see a lot more proof of origin.” On August 28th, Heritage notified David Herskowitz that his contract would not be renewed. He hopes to open a new natural-history department at another auction house.
In December, the Prokopis put Serenola on the market for eight hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars. They had been offering various other items on eBay—their first sales since June—including a slab of Florida cypress salvaged from the Suwannee River, and Amanda’s 2002 Lexus S.U.V., which sold for ninety-one hundred dollars.
By January, when I visited them again, the Prokopis had decided to sell as many belongings as they could—from pool furniture to prints on the walls—and move in temporarily with Amanda’s mother, in Virginia. Instead of the Lexus, Amanda told me, they now had two “smaller, dumpier” cars. They had no savings. “It was all in the dinosaurs,” she said.
In Virginia, Amanda hopes to continue working as an interior decorator. Eric plans to revive his fossil business, by doing prep work and making casts. He recently canvassed some ranch land in Wyoming, looking for prime fossil-hunting spots, and hopes to open a dinosaur quarry nearby. “It’s competitive,” he said. “It takes a while to get in on something.”
“And it’s a lot of time away,” Amanda said. “Every time he goes out West, it’s months of time that he’s not with his kids.”
“Yeah, the Mongolian stuff basically just arrived here and didn’t require me to be gone a lot,” Eric said.
Amanda said, “What kills me is that we watch these clips from the news and people are laughing about it. People think it’s funny. It’s not. It’s our life. It’s pretty much over.” She began crying, for the second or third time.
“It’s not over,” Eric told her. “But we’re gonna start over.”
It’s over “as we know it,” Amanda said. “And for what? For bones? No one’s been murdered. We restored a dinosaur. You know?”
Eric had photocopied two texts for me to take home. In one, he had highlighted a passage about the relative commonness of T. bataar, which, he believed, underscored his point that his specimens were scientifically unimportant. The other was a German magazine article about a Hamburg dealer of Mongolian fossils. Prokopi suggested that the article offered proof that the Mongolians have sanctioned some commercial exports. I pressed him: had this happened with the T. bataar? Prokopi said only that he had heard of exportation permits being granted in the past, and initially believed that such permits would be issued for the T. bataar. When the dinosaur reached Great Britain, he discovered that there were no permits, and imported the fossils anyway. I asked for copies of the past permits, and for the names of those who provided them. He declined, saying, “There’s details about my dealings and associations in Mongolia that I’d like to talk about, but I don’t think I can.”
Painter, President Elbegdorj’s attorney, said, “Prokopi’s story evolves every time there’s a new hurdle. If Prokopi believes he was duped, the Mongolian government would love to know about that. All we want is a name, and the government will aggressively investigate.”
Prokopi, meanwhile, is getting ready for the Tucson show, in February, by restoring a giraffe skeleton and “low-end bulk stuff.” Lederman has asked federal authorities to release the Prokopis’ seized possessions. Among them is a cast that Prokopi made of the T. bataar. He hopes to sell it in Tucson, for at least thirty thousand dollars.
The real T. bataar will go home in the spring. The Mongolian government recently decided to turn an old Lenin museum into a new dinosaur museum. A national Mongol Bataar Day has been suggested for May 18th, to commemorate the date when President Elbegdorj acted on news of the Heritage auction. The Prokopis had given the T. bataar the distinctly American nickname Ty. The dinosaur will now be known as Mongol Baatar—“Mongolian hero.”