Identifying and preserving the past of natural history specimens is the main mission of The Tricottet Collection. The term past here refers to the time period over which the specimen is in the hands of Man, from its discovery to the drawers of The Tricottet Collection, via other collections of historical importance. This section gives a personal account by Dr. A. Mignan of his detective work, a compilation of short notes on the history of natural history collections.
These short notes can be updated any time some new information comes to light, so be sure to check the date of the last update. Want to read more? Have a look at our Article Section in which longer write-ups published in magazines and journals are made available online.
Created: 10 November 2012 - Last update: 10 November 2012
[MINERALS] [LIFE] [METEORITES]
The way The Tricottet Collection is being built over time is reminiscent of my childhood. Of course, I had collected rocks already1 so the TC is an obvious continuation of what has become a life-long passion, but that's not all. I also enjoyed collecting panini-type stickers and cards, going from the Garbage Pail Kids to NBA series. Today, I collect rare specimen cards of minerals, fossils, meteorites and other naturalia, the rule being for meteorites to have at least three cards from the same source (a museum or an old private collection) to consider the series complete (see our Label Archive). For minerals and rocks, far more cards may be needed to complete a set, as can be seen for instance in Special Collection B (A James R. Gregory (1832-1899) Collection), where the rock set is composed of 100 specimen cards (one missing, argh!) and the mineral set of 200 cards (considered complete even though some numbers are duplicates or doubtfull). So it is just like panini cards but in a more sophisticated, connoisseur, manner with a mix of science and history. As a nerdy kid, I also enjoyed experimenting with chemistry sets, not only for the colorful molecular reactions, but also for the laboratory atmosphere that a few glass vials added to the bedroom. Again, a parallel can be made with the TC, as the present short note is all about minerals (Fig. 1), shells (Fig. 2) and meteorites (Fig. 3) preserved in vials!
All vials shown here are antique glass vials, most dating back to the 19th Century or early 20th. All carry an inventory number (painted number or sticker) or are accompanied by a label, or both. Minerals shown in Figure 1 are formerly from the Michigan College of Mines and from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The Tricottet Collection counts more mineral vials, e.g. from the Freiberg Mining Academy Mineral Dealership, from James R. Gregory (see Special Collection B) or from Félix Pisani (1831-1920) (see Donations section). Minerals in vials are particularly attractive as they are often isolated crystals. In other cases, minerals are in powder form, making the parallel with chemistry sets even more obvious. The Life section of the TC counts about a dozen antique shell vials, all formerly from the Barbier Collection, a French collection from the early 20th century (Fig. 2). Most specimens of this collection were collected during the 19th Century by well-known collectors and scientists, including Eudel, Dautzenberg, Loustau and Crosse. However more research is required to identify the origin of the different specimens and it remains unclear if it is Barbier who systematically preserved shells in glass vials or if the vials predate the Barbier Collection. Meteorites are rarer than minerals and shells and even rarer when they come in antique vials. Figure 3 shows a unique series of meteorites in vials formerly from the Universitatea Babeş-Bolyai (Romania), from Boubée (late 19th - early 20th century) and from Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882). All are of course small fragments, but with much character.
A simple look at the previous figures transports us to older times, maybe to the Victorian Era, on the bench of a laboratory or in the drawers of a museum collection. All of these specimens carry with them this atmosphere, created from the association of a glass vial, a cork, some painted number and handwritten card. They are miniature mementos of something of the past. Who uses such vials nowadays, except maybe the craftsmen of Etsy who arrange new natural history collections in vintage vials? These specimens are not only reminiscent of the past but of the fantasy world we are so keen to let our mind wander into. Don't they look like ingredients for a magical spell in the potions class of Hogwarts castle? Isn't there any philosopher's stone or Horcrux hidding in one of these historical vials?
So continues the search for more antique vials to add to The Tricottet Collection and hopefully, someday, I will come across a boxed set of mineral vials, like the ones Dr. Friedrich Krantz of Bonn, Germany, arranged in the early 20th Century (Fig. 4). That would become for sure a highlight of the collection!
Krantz, F. (c. 1930), Allgemeiner Lehrmittel Katalog - Mineralogie-Geologie, Mit zahlreichen Illustrationen. Catalogue Nr. 18, Dritte Auflage, Bonn am Rhein, 303 pp.
1. Learn more about the COLLECTION'S BEGINNINGS (1987-2000) in the About Us section.
Created: 1 July 2012 - Last update: 1 July 2012
We are in Munich, Saturday 3 November 2007, at the largest mineral show in Europe. In my mind was a plan of the building, of the different halls and of the location of the tables exhibiting meteorites. My goal was to find at least one meteorite specimen with a rich pedigree, with a museum label, a painted inventory number or even better, both. After a quick look around, slaloming between fellow collectors and other visitors, I became quite sure that I could find what I was looking for at two different tables. The first interesting meteorite was a nice little piece of greyish and brownish rock with a bit of black crust and a strip of white paint with a bold black number on it. I asked to the seller if it was an inventory number from a museum but he was not the owner of the specimens displayed in that cabinet and had no idea of the origin of this intriguing signature. I had to come back some time later to meet with the owners, the Karl family (Achim and Moritz), to learn that it was a fragment of the Vouillé meteorite and that the number was from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP). At the end of the day, this is that specimen that became part of The Tricottet Collection.
Before going back to that Vouillé specimen, I discussed with another meteorite dealer who had a few remarkable meteorite specimens from 19th century falls. I scrutinized the eclectic accumulation of rocks but could not find any with a museum label or a painted number. The dealer noticing that I was a connoisseur of historic meteorites showed me a box, which appeared from under the table, and which contained an elongated white fragment of rock, with a painted number and a label. The label read: "INSTITUTE OF METEORITICS | UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO | Name Norton County, Kansas". I was amazed... and badly surprised by the high price for this ~10-gram specimen. I took a last look at the Norton County meteorite and left to acquire the Vouillé meteorite from the ANSP.
That day, I added the Norton County meteorite with University of New Mexico (UNM) provenance to the top 5 of my want list. It looked like a must-have; Norton County from the source institution, from the Institute of Meteoritics at the UNM, where virtually all the Norton County meteorite material was located (UNM Meteorite Museum; LaPaz, 1965).
Specimens seemed very rare in private collections. None were to be found in online stores and my inquiries to dealers and collectors failed for several years. This is only in 2010 that I got the opportunity to acquire a specimen (ex. TC66.4, 50.4g, N23.130,1). It was a superb endcut exemplifying the internal structure of aubrites and it was offered at a reasonable price. Learning that I could get another fragment (Fig. 1) a few months later and that a fellow collector was willing to trade a Sikhote-Alin meteorite from the Russian Academy of Sciences for the 50.4g endcut, I did not hesitate and abandoned TC66.4. Specimen TC66.5 was five times smaller but reminded me of the specimen I had seen in 2007. The specimen found a place of choice in The Tricottet Collection.
The story could have ended there but then occurred the Tissint meteorite fall, in Morrocco, on 18 July 2011, the first Martian meteorite fall since Zagami, in 1962. The Tissint meteorite literally opened the doors (or should we say the drawers) of museum collections, especially in the United States. And then was a continuous flow of Norton County fragments from the UNM inundating the market. Prices dropped, which was a good thing (especially since I had not purchased the 2007 specimen and also because I had no intention to resell the specimen in collection). I took that chance to buy a few more fragments, a complete series of successive UNM numbers (Fig. 2). Norton County meteorites with UNM provenance are not rare. As of 1965, the UNM collection counted about 8,000 fragments with a weight of 1 gram or more. Including specimens under one gram, the 1965 catalogue goes up to the inventory number N.15000 (all specimens being numbered and weighted! LaPaz, 1965). Noteworthy about one thousand more specimens were added to the UNM collection later on, as indicated in the fourth catalog of the UNM meteorite collection (Scott et al., 1990). How many specimens did UNM deaccession before the 2011-2012 trades? How many after? A thorough analysis of the different collection catalogues should help answering this question (it is however out of the scope of this short note). Four published catalogues exist: LaPaz (1965), Lange et al. (1980), Scott et al. (1986) and Scott et al. (1990). The most recent catalogue is available online only, one of the tragedies of the digital era with only printouts available for one collector's library. Now can we say that there is a difference between the once rare, coveted, Norton County UNM fragments and the new one-click away Norton County UNM fragments?? My opinion, since the true value is in the eye of the beholder, is that there is. The fragment shown in Figure 1 was certainly once one of these treasured meteorites, hidden under a table at mineral shows, and then cherished by its successive owners (TC66.5 chain-of-custody: unk. / M. Oswald / M. Bandli / Tricottet Collection). Let's say that the "new" specimens have less charisma. Now is the interesting part. One can distinguish between specimens, pre and post-Tissint, by tracking the UNM inventory number of Norton County meteorite fragments in the different catalogues (Fig. 3). While the series of 5 (from N.2605 to N.2609) is in both 1965 and 1990 catalogues, N.299 is in the 1965 catalogue but not in the 1990 catalogue. I have now to find the two other catalogues (from 1980 and 1986) to better assess the deaccession year of this specimen. In fact, the story of the UNM Norton County meteorite fragments has become even more interesting.
LaPaz, L. (1965), Catalog of the Collections of The Institute of Meteoritics The University of New Mexico, as of October 1, 1965, University of New Mexico Publications in Meteoritics Number 4, New Mexico University Press
Scott, E. R. D., K. Keil, A. M. Smetana and A. Pun (1990), Fourth catalog of the meteorite collection of the Institute of Meteoritics, University of New Mexico. Special Publication no. 24, UNM Institute of Meteoritics
Lange, D.E., Klaus, K., LaPaz, L. (1980) Catalog of the Meteorite Collection of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico
Scott, E. R. D., Keil, K. and Nelson, L. M. (1986), Catalog of the Meteorite Collection of the Institute of Meteoritics, University of New Mexico. Spec. Publ. 23, UNM Institute of Meteoritics, pp. 1-60.
Created: 4 June 2011 - Last update: 15 February 2012
The story starts in early 2006 when I spotted a fragment of the rare St. Michel meteorite, a 1910 Finnish fall, on an online auction site. What immediately attracted my attention was one particular line from the descriptive text which indicated that this fragment originated from the Helsinki Natural History Museum. At that time, I was unaware that a space rock, or any naturalia, could have any historical appeal in addition to its potential aesthetic and scientific interest. Looking back at that period, it is clear that this particular specimen played a role in the direction that The Tricottet Collection took since then - I bid and won the St. Michel meteorite - It was an elongated fragment, showing some fresh crust on a side and weighting c. 16 grams (Fig. 1). But only a few minutes after I won this specimen, a second St. Michel meteorite fragment, slightly bigger, and to my amazement with a small painted identifyer, appeared on the auction site. The identifyer, B5099, was neatly painted in white on a background of azure color paint, and looked like the signature that a sculptor would have left on this natural piece of art (Fig. 2). I lost this second auction. It is at that moment that my surprise faded away to be quickly replaced by disappointment, a feeling associated to the St. Michel meteorite that lasted for almost five years...
I learned some time later that the painted fragment had been purchased by Peter Marmet, owner of a renowned collection of historic meteorites. Although many collectors would recognize the 16 gram fragment as a very correct representative of the St. Michel meteorite, for me it was missing this small piece of paint. As a consequence, I didn't even give it a proper Tricottet Collection inventory number and it went straight to the trade box. In 2009, it was traded, the story was over, or at least this is what I thought.
It is only in early 2011 that St. Michel was back on my mind, learning that Peter Marmet was making the fragment with the museum number available for sale. I could not miss the opportunity and was lucky enough to finally add the 22 gram fragment to the Tricottet Collection, entry number TC88.1. The first thing that struck me was the beauty and elegance of the small Finnish Natural History Museum identifyer. Martin Horejsi described perfectly numbers from the Helsinki collection as 'white coulds [... that] float gently in the painted blue sky background, with each brush stroke a careful precise addition to the history of [...] the stone' (Accretion Desk, Nov. 2004).
I then remembered what the seller of the two St. Michel meteorite fragments told me back in 2006. He had broken the original fragment, a violent act that I could not comprehend, but common practice in the meteorite business to increase profit but possibly also to make rare specimens available to more collectors. I wondered if the shape of the fragment I had for some years would match the shape of the one I recently acquired. Again I was quite fortunate since the person to whom I traded it still had it in his collection and agreed to trade it back. Here was specimen TC88.2! As can be seen from Figure 3, the 2 fragments form a perfect puzzle. Rapid visual inspection shows that this cosmic puzzle is still incomplete, with at least one internal fragment missing (Fig. 4). One can even see the circular pit where the tool used to break the original mass penetrated and we can only wonder if the semi-circular chip at the bottom of the specimen on Figure 3 is not due to the same tool. The hunt continues to find more pieces and I am still waiting to hear from the 2006 seller to know if he remembers how many fragments were obtained after breaking down the original mass.
What is currently known about the chain-of-custody of specimens TC88.1-2 is that the 2006 seller obtained the original St. Michel specimen from a trade with Tony Nikischer from Excalibur Mineral Corp. in the mid-1990s. Nikischer obtained it directly from Dr. Martti Lehtinen, at the time curator of the Finnish Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, Excalibur Mineral Corp. did not keep any records of that trade. I am now also waiting to hear from the museum of Helsinki in the hope to find some references where the specimen B5099 would have been described. At present, I am not aware of any catalogue published for that collection, although it is quite certain that such a catalogue exists. Until some new information are obtained, if you have a fragment of the St. Michel meteorite purchased after 2006 (and which might be a piece of the puzzle) or if you know about a catalogue of the Finnish Natural History Museum meteorite collection, please contact The Tricottet Collection.
Borgström, L. H. (1912), Der Meteorit von St. Michel. Bull. Commission Géologique de Finlande, No. 34, Helsingfors, 49 pp., 3 pls.
Catalogue of the meteorite collection of the Finnish Natural History Museum, Helsinki.