Voices: Someone stole our dinosaur: The hunt for a 50-million-year-old skeleton

·5-min read
I’m beginning to accept that we might never see our dinosaur again (Carla Nizzola)
I’m beginning to accept that we might never see our dinosaur again (Carla Nizzola)

The Gobi desert is hot. Too hot. Batu, our guide, is wearing a coat and gloves. He gestures to a rock formation on the horizon. Nick Cage dinosaur, he says, enthusiastically. James looks at me and shrugs. We’ve no way of knowing if it’s the real dig site or not, and in the heat and dust, I’ve kind of forgotten why we care.

Forty eight hours earlier it had seemed essential that we visit Mongolia and find the precise location where the Tyrannosaurus skull was discovered that was later smuggled out of the country, and subsequently sold to the movie star Nicolas Cage for $276,000. Americans, Batu sighs, they love to steal dinosaurs.

We’re in Mongolia looking for clues in the hunt for our own dinosaur, which has gone missing. We acquired the 50-million-year-old Thesceloraurus skeleton two years earlier at the Tuscon Fossil and Gem show, but sometime between our paying for it and it being delivered, it had disappeared. Someone, it seemed, had stolen our dinosaur.

One of the largely but not entirely discredited early theories about its whereabouts was as follows; a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa drug cartel, using his US lawyer as an intermediary, had negotiated the purchase of our dinosaur as a birthday gift for his youngest son, who was obsessed with the Jurassic Park films.

The dealer who had originally sold us the skeleton had not only received a far higher offer, but also one he felt was unwise to refuse. The cartel member in question was now incarcerated whilst awaiting trial in the US, and we were told that our best bet at being reunited with our dinosaur might be to wait until his case was over, when his properties would be confiscated by the Mexican authorities, which might take several years.

Unsatisfied by the idea of such a long wait for answers, we spent a few months doing some investigating of our own. Our efforts eventually led us to the back room of a New York gallery, where our US gallerist, Bernie Chase, had brokered a meeting with the aforementioned lawyer. After a minder confiscated our phones, he politely explained that his client did indeed have a son, Teo, who was obsessed with dinosaurs, but that the theory couldn’t possibly be true, because his client would never have bought a herbivore.

A second line of enquiry came not from law enforcement, but along a grapevine of commercial palaeontologists and auction house specialists. A well-known Australian movie star, having recently purchased a Mosasaur skull from Leonardo DiCaprio, had developed an obsession with collecting dinosaurs, and had been offering previously unheard of amounts of money for good specimens. He’d allegedly paid a record $1.5m for a Triceratops skull, and there was a good chance he’d come across our Thescelosaurus, and gazumped us. Emails and phone calls to the actor’s agent went unanswered.

No closer to a definitive answer of what had happened to our dinosaur, in February this year we travelled back to Tucson, to dig a little deeper. The fossil world is filled with wonderful, knowledgeable, passionate people, punctuated by the occasional rogue. In that way, it’s the exact opposite of the art world which we usually inhabit.

Dinosaur people are also, we found out, discrete and tight-lipped. Rumours of new discoveries are whispered, not announced, and, after a number of high-profile controversies and several prison sentences in the community, it was hard to find anyone willing to talk about a stolen dinosaur.

We took to buying beers and tequilas for weather beaten, craggy faced, fossil hunters in some of Arizona’s most colourful dive bars, with the hope of loosening tongues. One name cropped up multiple times; Eric Prokopi. Prokopi had traded in smuggled dinosaurs for years, until he was finally caught out selling a Tyrannosaurus bataar he’d smuggled out of Mongolia for over $1m, and sentenced to three months in prison. He may know something, he may not know something, one dealer in rare iridescent ammonites drunkenly slurred, either way, he won’t tell you boys s***.

In a world full of discovery and adventure, it seemed that the possibilities of what had happened to our skeleton were exciting and endless, but one collector told us the answer was likely less glamorous – the seller had simply reneged on our agreement. The market for dinosaur bones has never been hotter, and in a hot market, greed trumps handshakes.

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In October 2020, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, discovered and excavated by Pete Larson and his team at Black Hills Institute, sold at Christies for $31.8m, and in May of this year, a chicken-sized Velociraptor made $12.4m. With dinosaurs making such huge sums of money, perhaps the seller of ours simply got a better offer.

Back at our hotel in Ulaanbaatar, James and I drink fresh Chatsarganii juice, and sit in exhausted silence. I’m beginning to accept that we might never see our dinosaur again, and that its whereabouts might forever remain a mystery. Since childhood I’d always wanted to find a dinosaur, and the next best thing, as an adult, was to own one. I guess in some strange way, for a brief time, I had owned one.

I’m thinking this, and other things, when James interrupts. “Did you know that the moon is one of the rarest materials on earth? Every lunar meteorite known could be contained within just five footlockers.”

I consider this for a few minutes with a growing sense of wonder, before an idea begins to form. “Shall we buy a piece of the moon?” I ask.

Mike Snelle is one half of the artist duo The Connor Brothers. The Connor Brothers will curate ‘Some of My Best Friends are Dinosaurs’ at Extraordinary Objects in Cambridge from 2 July–2 October

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