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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

The Dinosaur Artist Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy

By: Paige Williams(Author)
410 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Scribe UK
The Dinosaur Artist is a palaeontological page-turner of suspense and true-crime that is as fair in the portrayal of its protagonists, as it is thorough in providing context for its story.
The Dinosaur Artist
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  • The Dinosaur Artist ISBN: 9781911617907 Paperback Sep 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
  • The Dinosaur Artist ISBN: 9780316382533 Hardback Sep 2018 In stock
Selected version: £14.99
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About this book

New Yorker magazine staff writer Paige Williams delves into the surprisingly perilous world of fossil collectors in this riveting true tale.

In 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: 'a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton'. In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar – a close cousin to the more-famous T. rex – that had been unearthed in Mongolia. At 2.4 metres high and 7.3 metres long, the specimen was spectacular, and the winning bid was over $1 million.

Eric Prokopi, a 38-year-old Floridian, had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A one-time swimmer who'd spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi's singular obsession with fossils fuelled a thriving business, hunting for, preparing, and selling specimens to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like Leonardo DiCaprio.

But had Prokopi gone too far this time? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of palaeontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. An international custody battle ensued, with Prokopi watching as his own world unravelled.

The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history, and about a seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. A story that stretches from Florida's Land O' Lakes to the Gobi Desert, The Dinosaur Artist illuminates the history of fossil collecting – a murky, sometimes risky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, and enthusiast and opportunist can easily blur.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A palaeontological page-turner
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Sep 2018 Written for Paperback

    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) 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.

    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 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 and The Gilded Dinosaur), the first fossil-collecting expeditions in the Gobi Desert by the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920s (see Dragon Hunter), and the life of English fossil collector Mary Anning (see Jurassic Mary).

    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.

    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), 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) 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 or The Feather Thief, you should certainly give this book a read.
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Paige Williams is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a Mississippi native. A National Magazine Award winner for feature writing, she has had her journalism anthologized in various volumes of the Best American series, including The Best American Magazine Writing and The Best American Crime Writing. She is the Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and has taught at schools including the University of Mississippi, New York University, the Missouri School of Journalism, and, at M.I.T., in the Knight Science Journalism program. Williams has been a fellow of The MacDowell Colony and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. At The New Yorker, she has written about suburban politics in Detroit, the death penalty in Alabama, palaeoanthropology in South Africa, and the theft of cultural palimony from the Tlingit peoples of Alaska.

By: Paige Williams(Author)
410 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Scribe UK
The Dinosaur Artist is a palaeontological page-turner of suspense and true-crime that is as fair in the portrayal of its protagonists, as it is thorough in providing context for its story.
Media reviews

"The Dinosaur Artist is a tale that has everything: passion, science, politics, intrigue, and, of course, dinosaurs. Paige Williams is a wonderful storyteller."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction

"The Dinosaur Artist is a breathtaking feat of writing and reporting: a strange, irresistible, and beautifully written story steeped in natural history, human nature, commerce, crime, science, and politics. It's at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply sobering. I was blown away by the depth of its characters, its vivid details, and Paige Williams' incredible command of the facts. Bottom line: this is an extraordinary debut by one of the best nonfiction writers we've got."
– Rebecca Skloot, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"What a terrific book. A fascinating story of adventure and obsession, and a captivating journey into the world of fossils and fossil peddlers, scientists, museums, international politics, the history of life, and the nature of human nature. Williams writes beautifully about it all. If you love dinosaurs, paleontology, or just a rollicking good tale, you will love this book. I couldn't put it down."
– Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Birds

"A cracking combination of true crime, dinosaurs, and top-notch investigative journalism. Paige Williams' riveting tale exposes the dodgy dealings of the black market trade in dinosaurs, an international underworld that that few people have probably heard of, and which breaks my heart as a paleontologist."
– Steve Brusatte, bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"Paige Williams is that rare reporter who burrows into a subject until all of its dimensions, all of its darkened corners and secret chambers, are illuminated. With The Dinosaur Artist, she has done more than reveal a gripping true crime story; she has cast light on everything from obsessive fossil hunters to how the earth evolved. This is a tremendous book."
– David Grann, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon

"The Dinosaur Artist is a triumph. With peerless prose and sharp-eyed reporting, Paige Williams weaves a story that, even as it spans continents and transcends geological epochs, is deeply anchored in the passion and hubris of a rich cast of characters. Captivating, funny, and profound, it is easily one of the strongest works of non-fiction in years."
– Ed Yong, staff writer, The Atlantic; New York Times bestselling author of I Contain Multitudes

"Paige Williams is as deft as the fossil hunters and skeleton builders she writes about. As they exhume treasures secreted in earthen repositories and assemble brilliant mounts from a scattering of dinosaur bones, she mines exquisite details from a quarry of source materials and pieces together a compelling story out of a spillage of human experience. The result is a work of art."
– Jack E. Davis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Gulf

"I am in awe of Paige Williams. Every line of The Dinosaur Artist – from her deeply informed discussions of paleontology and the law to her often withering and hilarious descriptions – was a pleasure to read. Few nonfiction writers are capable of mining their characters with such a winning blend of sympathy, wonder, and rigour."
– Liza Mundy, New York Times bestselling author of Michelle and Code Girls

"Vivid storytelling [...] A triumphant book."
Publishers Weekly

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