The saga of Ty, the Tyrannosaurus bataar fossil smuggled out of Mongolia and into a May 2012 sale by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, effectively came to a close last month when Eric Prokopi, the "commercial paleontologist" behind the sale, pleaded guilty to illegally smuggling the specimen into the U.S.
The origins of the story date back some 70 million years to when Ty died after a life spent wandering around Central Asia in what is now the Gobi Desert, and just happened to be caught in bone-preserving sediment. Just as important in this case is what happened in 1997, when a complete T. rex skeleton discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota and nicknamed Sue was sold for $8.4 million.
That's what sparked the modern commercial fossil trade and seems to have helped inspire Prokopi, who was 16 at the time and had grown up collecting and occasionally selling fossils, to make it a career.
The portrait that emerges of Prokopi is intriguing -- he built a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in his backyard to house his fossil work -- but not particularly flattering. When Williams visits his Florida home in August, as the legal case is making its way through courts, he declines to say much, but it's clear that he feels like a victim.
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 [Prokopi's wife] 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.
Amanda goes on to compare a newly discovered fossil to "the paint in the 'Mona Lisa,'" with her husband playing the part of da Vinci by assembling them into a complete skeleton. She then compares it to renovating fossils, an assessment which Prokopi agrees.
"[It's like] Renovating a house and putting tons of money into it, and the government coming and seizing it before you can sell it," Eric said.
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Lost to Prokopi is the thought that the countries where fossils are found might have some rightful claim to them. Mongolia passed a law in 1924 outlawing the removal from the country of dinosaur bones and other items of interest to natural history found there, but that's largely ignored by the poachers and commercial fossil hunters who scour the desert for valuable specimens that then find their way onto the black market.
But even his fellow dealers were galled by Prokopi's hubris, marveling that anyone would be stupid enough to sell such a high-profile -- and, since T. bataars are found only in Mongolia, clearly illegal -- fossil in a very public auction, which is what ultimately did him in. A Mongolian paleontologist in New York saw Ty mentioned in a preview of the auction and contacted the president of Mongolia, who initiated the proceedings that would halt the sale.
Heritage comes off looking somewhat better, portrayed as a purveyor of $200,000 handbags and collectibles that dabbles in natural history auctions. When it became clear that the fossil it was marketing had been obtained illegally, the company got out of the way. "It had been that easy," Williams writes, noting that auction houses are rarely held liable for the shady dealings of sellers.
As for Ty, he's set to return to Mongolia in the spring, where he will be placed in a Lenin museum now dedicated to dinosaurs. It's also possible that May 18, the day the country intervened to stop Heritage's auction, will now officially be Mongol Bataar Day.