A Cretaceous Caper In The World Of Fossil Hunting

Sep 26, 2018

With Meghna Chakrabarti

A true crime story 70 million years in the making. We’ll go inside the perilous and riveting world of fossil hunters.


Paige Williams, staff writer at The New Yorker Magazine. Author of “The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy” (@williams_paige)

Kirk Johnson, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (@leafdoctor

Frank Garcia, fossil hunter and collector.

From The Reading List

The New Yorker: Bones Of Contention — “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…

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.

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.”

The Atlantic: The Second Life Of Mongolian Fossils — “Ever since the 1997 sale of Sue for a then-unprecedented $7.6 million, fossils have proven to be an extremely lucrative luxury market. For buyers interested in owning prehistoric natural objects, dinosaur fossils like skulls and complete skeletons can add an impressive bit of the Cretaceous to their portfolios. In the 21st-century high-end collectors’ market, fossils from Mongolia and China, in particular, are challenging the international community’s ethical response to fossil trafficking. Ever since the return of that first Tarbosaurus, thanks to the Herculean efforts of the Mongolian paleontologist Bolortsetseg “Bolor” Minjin, dozens and dozens of other dinosaur fossils have been seized by ICE and sent back to Mongolia.

“Sending the fossils back” is really just a new beginning for these repatriated fossils.”

Read An Excerpt From The Dinosaur Artist

In October 2012, federal agents raided the home of a Florida man. They weren’t looking for drugs, or guns, or smuggled humans. They were looking for dinosaur bones. Prosecutors called Eric Prokopi a “one-man black market” for dinosaur fossils. He’d smuggled 70 million year old bones out of Mongolia and put them up for auction in New York. He went to jail. Prokopi’s story uncovers the fascinating, hidden world of fossil smuggling and its impact on nations like Mongolia. This hour, On Point: Inside the world of fossil smugglers – A mystery 70 million years in the making. — Meghna Chakrabarti. 

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