museum 'poachers'

Michael Gochfeld gochfeld at
Tue Apr 9 23:14:04 EDT 2002

James Kruse implied that paid collecting for museums is uncommon, and it
probably is today.

Historically, many museums hired collectors.  Rothschild (c1900) hired
collectors for birds and butterflies and probably lots else.  He was
particularly interested in island populations..

The AMNH mounted several series of major expeditions, for example the
Whitney South Seas Expedition which lasted for many years. It was under
the supervision of Rollo Beck, about whom many interesting stories were
told.  At any one time Beck supervised at least several paid  shooters
and preparators on ship.

Museums were more inclined to pay for specimens years ago than today.
At the AMNH circa 1970, a man contacted bird curator Dean Amadon about
the "value" of two Passenger Pigeons that he had found in some attic.
Dean assigned the task to me (lowest on totem pole) with the admonition
that the museum had plenty of Passenger Pigeons, and wouldn't pay a
cent, but would accept a donation.  I conveyed this information to the
"peddler" and he peddled somewhere else.  Private collectors no doubt
would have paid a lot for his specimens.

The museum also sponsored the Partridge expedition to northern
Argentina.  Bill Partridge was an indefatigible collector and put quite
a team of collectors and skinners in the field.  When the specimens
arrived at the museum there were literally over a hundred of several
species from a single location.  Dean Amadon told me that he was really
embarrassed by the over-collection, more than any museum should have
from a single site.  He quietly dispersed the collection to other

Museums certainly paid for private collections.  In the 1930's when
Walter Rothschild found himself in some financial embarrassment, he
tried to sell part of his bird collection to the BMNH.  The Museum or
the GOvt demurred, but Robert Cushman Murphy of the AMNH lept into the
breach with a fistful of dollars and the invaluable collection was
transported to the U.S. where it doubled the AMNH bird holdings.  There
was a huge outcry in Britain, but to no avail.  Money spoke louder than
nationalism.  Rothschild's Cassowary collection and his collection of
aberrant specimens stayed in Britain and are now at Tring.  I don't know
what happened to the butterflies.

Paying for specimens wasn't always the best idea.  The late (and
lately-referred to) Gene Eisenmann, told me that the AMNH paid the
Ollalla brothers to collect bird specimens in Amazonia, with an aim
toward getting birds from opposite sites of river systems.  Apparently
they were paid by the bird.   Too much work, and maybe the birds didn't
actually occur on both sides of the river.  So an unknown number of
specimens were deliberately mis-labelled.

I remember hearing that Rothschild collectors also mis-labelled some
bird specimens attributing them to islands where the species never
occurred (and which they never visited).

There's probably a rich history in the butterfly world as well.

On the opposite note, the Malayan National Museum approached the widow
of an important butterfly collector, who chose instead to sell off an
incomparable collection, piece by piece to many bidders, thereby
reducing its former high scientific value to nothingness.

Mike Gochfeld


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