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Public Lecture Series with Paige Williams

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

The first time Eric Prokopi saw Tarbosaurus (T. bataar) bones he was impressed. The enormous skull and teeth betrayed the apex predator's close relation to the storied Tyrannosaurus rex, the most famous animal that ever lived. Prokopi's obsession with fossils had begun decades earlier, when he was a Florida boy scouring for shark teeth and Ice Age remnants, and it had continued as he built a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens to avid collectors and private museums around the world. To scientists' fury and dismay, there was big money to be made in certain corners of the fossil trade. Prokopi didn't consider himself merely a businessman, though. He also thought of himself as a vital part of paleontology--as one of the lesser-known artistic links in bringing prehistoric creatures to life--and saw nothing wrong with turning a profit in the process.

Prokopi's Holy Grail was a nearly complete skeleton of T. bataar from Mongolia, a country that bans commercial fossil dealing. He restored it in his Florida workshop, while he was highly leveraged and drawing scorn from colleagues who worried he would taint a trade that was already under fire from the scientific community. His audacious attempt to auction the skeleton for $1 million in New York City fell apart when the president of Mongolia demanded the dinosaur's return. The custody battle for the bones triggered an international incident that blew open the black market for dinosaur fossils, sent reverberations through the worlds of paleontology, auctions, and geopolitics that are still being felt today, and forever altered Prokopi's life.

The Dinosaur Artist is the story of humans’ relationship with natural history and the seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. Its story stretches across the globe illuminating the history of fossil collecting, a popular, yet sometimes murky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, enthusiast and opportunist, can easily blur.

Paige Williams is a Mississippi native and a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she has written about subjects including suburban politics in Detroit, the death penalty in Alabama, paleoanthropology in South Africa, and the theft of cultural palimony from the Tlingit peoples of Alaska. A National Magazine Award winner for feature writing, and a later finalist in another category, she has had her journalism anthologized in multiple volumes of the Best American series, including The Best American Magazine Writing. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and has taught journalism at schools including NYU, the University of Mississippi, and the Missouri School of Journalism, and in the Knight Science Journalism program at M.I.T. She has been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

Date: February 4, 2019

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Lecture

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

Student Ticket Price: $5 with a valid student ID

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