“Come downstairs,” Chinzo said over the phone. It was past midnight. I left the apartment and walked outside. The only movement was the exhaust that billowed out of the Toyota SUV parked at the end of the lane. Behind the right-hand steering wheel an old man swung his head around to assess me as I slid into the backseat. He grimaced. The deep inlays of his face folded in on one another like a bellows.
This was the man we had phoned earlier. His poker game was over.
Chinzo sat next to me as the car passed silently through Ulaanbaatar’s sleeping hours. We drove along potholed roads, the smoke of coal fires curling beneath the streetlamps that guided us to the edge of town.
Already the day had been eventful. We met with one man behind a row of shops on Peace Avenue. Sitting in the back of Chinzo’s Land Cruiser, he pulled a tampon box out of his jacket. Reaching in, he produced an oblong object about eight inches long, reddish brown, lined and pebbled. He handed it to me. It was the egg of a theropod, a grouping of carnivorous dinosaurs. The egg weighed close to 10 pounds. I rolled it over in my palms. I knew from my research that it was at least 65 million years old, and here it was, still intact. “We’re looking for something bigger,” Chinzo told the man.
Now we were in the Toyota, on the hunt for something bigger indeed. The driver approached a metal gate and honked the horn. A man with an alcohol-blurred face appeared through a door in the gate, his eyes squinting into our headlights. We passed through the opened gate and drove into a yard of industrial castoffs: a Kamaz truck on blocks, snow-dusted piles of metal scrap, a factory’s rusted furnace.
We got out of the car. The air was bitterly cold, to the point of distraction. The old man led us to a shipping container in a corner of the enclosure. He gripped a flashlight between his teeth, fumbling with the lock. Our footsteps echoed through the container’s metal interior, which was filled with boxes labeled in hanzi and Cyrillic.
Quickly the old man snatched a crowbar. I realized the drunken man who had opened the gate now stood between us and the exit of the shipping container. The old man brandished the crowbar. I looked at Chinzo, but he betrayed nothing.
The old man turned away from us. He placed the crowbar’s pronged end into the lid of a crate. The box measured five feet long, three feet tall and two feet wide. He leveraged the crowbar, popping the lid off the crate.
In the flicker of his flashlight I saw that the crate was filled with sand. The old man began scraping away at the sand, spilling it onto the floor. Little by little a shape began to reveal itself. There was something there.
The old man gripped the object with two hands, straining with the effort required to raise it from the box. As the object caught the illumination from the flashlight, I saw what it was—a dinosaur skull.
The mandible was missing, as were the teeth, but the eye sockets and nasal cavities were evident. The skull was four feet long and two feet wide. The old man struggled to hold it. He propped the skull on a bucket. As he did so, he chipped off a slice of bone, which clattered to the floor.
I looked over the specimen. I took a few measurements. “Twenty-five million tugriks,” the old man said, which was about $18,000. I balked. The old man’s voice echoed in the shipping container. So we wanted something bigger? He said he had a contact in the Gobi for us, near the Flaming Cliffs.
Eric Prokopi is the reason the dinosaur fossil black market in Mongolia had gone underground. A world away from Ulaanbaatar and the Gobi, two days after Christmas in 2012, Prokopi entered Magistrate Court 5A in the U.S. District Courthouse on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. I watched him walk in that day. He had the deep tan of someone who lives in a tropical climate. He wore a black suit with a white shirt but no tie, as though the court didn’t deserve his spending any extra time in front of the mirror. It had inconvenienced him enough already. On October 17 police had arrested Prokopi at his home in Gainesville, Florida. He now faced 17 years in prison. Prokopi described himself as a “commercial paleontologist.” He was not a scientist, and he had completed no formal training in the excavation and study of dinosaurs. Yet like others in what is occasionally called the dragon-bone trade, Prokopi traveled across the country and around the world, scouting for fossils that he could ship to his Florida home. There he would clean them, mount them on metal frames of his own construction and sell them on the growing fossil market, where the most attractive specimens could fetch millions of dollars.
That market is most vivid in Tucson, Arizona, 70 miles from the Mexican border, at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The exhibition has been held every year since 1954. It assembles a comprehensive collection of diamonds, rocks and fossils, along with every manner of prospector, scavenger, scientist, smuggler and bone hunter ever to peek under a rock. Prokopi was a regular at the Tucson show. There he became acquainted with Mongolian fossils, mingling with those international bone hunters who openly displayed their Gobi prizes for scientists, dealers and the scouts who worked for auction houses. Soon Prokopi began to appear in Tucson with Mongolian bones of his own.
Early last year Prokopi consigned a largely intact Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton to Heritage Auctions, a Dallas company that claimed to be the largest collectibles auctioneer in the world. Tyrannosaurus bataar, also known as the tarbosaurus, thrived in the final epoch of the dinosaurs, some 70 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period. Scientists consider the tarbosaurus the Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex, nearly identical but for slight variations. Prokopi had connected with Heritage through David Herskowitz, a contact from the Tucson shows who was head of the auction house’s natural history division.