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. Arnaud Mignan of his detective work, a compilation of short notes on the history of natural history collections.
These short notes may 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 Articles Section in which longer write-ups published in magazines and journals are made available online.
Created: 18 August 2013 - Last update: 18 August 2013
On 12 March 1899, a large stony meteorite penetrated 1 m of ice and plunged 8 m deep into the mud on a shallow bay near the coast in Bjurböle south of Porvoo, 50 km east of Helsinki, Finland. Incredibly enough, this meteorite was later on retrieved from under water (Ramsay and Borgström, 1902). A 19th century Finnish meteorite of such panache for sure needs its place in The Tricottet Collection. However, despite fragments of the Bjurböle meteorite appearing on the market from time to time, I had not seen any of historical provenance... so far. For this fourth installment of the Historical Investigations, I will describe a recent acquisition, some small fragments of the Bjurböle meteorite with a very interesting past. What I expected to receive in the mailbox was several fragments and some powder of the Bjurböle meteorite (Fig. 1), accompanied by a rare label from the Mineralogisches Museum im Museum für Naturkunde der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HUB) (Fig. 2) and a glued yellow sticker with typed number 73A.1 from the Herb Obodda collection (White, 2008). Not bad. What I received revealed to be even more interesting.
Once in collection, I quickly learned that Herb Obodda had obtained "the Bjurböle fragment" in an exchange with HUB sometime in the early 1980's (pers. comm., H. Obodda, 2013). One fragment? Indeed, at the time, it was only a one 15.80-gram fragment and a picture of the original fragment exists thanks to the pictorial cataloguing system used by Obodda! (see photocopy of the catalogue page, courtesy of H. Obodda). I first had thought that the multiple fragments had directly originated from the HUB since the letter "M" on the label (Fig. 2) likely stands for "Multiple, i.e. uncountable grains or powder" (Schulze, 1996:iv). So what happened to this poor specimen? I learned from Allan Langheinrich that the specimen had broken down into gravel during shipping from Obodda to Lang. It is well known that Bjurböle meteorite specimens are very fragile, certainly due to their bath in the Baltic Sea. What a pity! At least I knew what it looked like before this unfortunate accident. It was 4.0x2.0x1.7 cm, described as "Fragment with small section of crust". Crust huh? This is only after a careful inspection of the different pieces and after removing a thin layer of grey dust that a patch of crust became evident (Fig. 3).
That was a nice suprise since specimens with crust are very rare. Indeed only one large stone fell from the sky and the crust portion relates only to the square of the radius instead of the cube of the radius for the matrix part. A nicer surprise was still awaiting me! Now investigating the smaller fragments, an oddly shaped piece caught my attention. It was a chondrule with some elongated flat appendage. It was a layer of glue and on the other face, SURPRISE, a small sticker with the inventory number 1463 (Fig. 4). I went through my 1996 copy of the HUB meteorite collection catalogue (Schulze, 1996) and found the same number page 41, a match to the Bjurböle meteorite (Fig. 5). The line reads: "1463 M 2.8 g fragments". Here I was, with a very very interesting specimen indeed.
Of course, the file is not closed yet. Obodda traded the 15.8-gram fragment in the 1980's so is it possible to track it down in previous HUB catalogues? The other HUB catalogues in the Tricottet Collection Library are of limited use. They indicate that large Bjurböle fragments were added to the collection very early (Klein, 1903; 1904; 1906). But what about smaller fragments? Were they acquired later on? Are they former pieces of the larger HUB masses? When was the first reference to number 1463 made? What was the original weight of the 1463 lot? Only an access to the other HUB catalogues will help answering these questions (Wappler and Hoppe, 1969; Hoppe, 1975).
Hoppe, G. (1975), Gesamtkatakog der in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik vorhandenen Meteorite. Wiss. Zeitschr. Humboldt-Univ. Berlin, Math.-Nat. R. , 24, 521-569. (WANTED)
Klein, C. (1903), Die Meteoritensammlung der Königlichen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin am 5. Februar 1903. Sitzber. d. Königl. Preuss. Acad. Wiss., 34 pp.
Klein, C. (1904), Die Meteoritensammlung der Königlichen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin am 21. Januar 1904. Sitzber. d. Königl. Preuss. Acad. Wiss., 40 pp.
Klein, C. (1906), Studien über Meteoriten, vorgenommen auf Grund des Materials der Sammlung der Universität Berlin. Abhandl. d. Königl. Akad. d. Wiss. Berlin, 141 pp., 3 pls.
Ramsay, W. and L. H. Borgström (1902), Der Meteorit von Bjurböle bei Borga. Helsingfors, 28 pp. (WANTED)
Schulze, H. (1996), Catalogue of Meteorites of the Museum of Natural History, Humboldt-University Berlin. Naturhistorisches Forschunginstitut Museum für Naturkunde, Zentralinstitut der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin Institut für Mineralogie, Berlin. 163 pp.
Wappler, G. and G. Hoppe (1969), Katalog der Meteoriten aus dem Museum für Naturkunde an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Mineralogisches Museum. Ber. deutsch. Ges. geol. Wiss. B., 14, 359-381. (WANTED)
White, J. S. (2008), Herbert P. Obodda, Dealer, Gentleman, and Collector Extraordinaire. The Mineralogical Record, 39, 315-330.
Created: 10 November 2012 - Last update: 6 July 2013
[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 Tricottet Collection 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 is simple. For meteorites, we need 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 album" in the 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 Tricottet Collection, 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 Tricottet Collection 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 the Boubée family (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. Do they look not like ingredients for a magical spell in the potions class of Hogwarts castle? Is there not 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: 6 July 2013
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 this 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 white box, which appeared from under the table. It 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 locked in drawers (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 2011 that I got the opportunity to acquire a specimen, which reminded me, for its size, of the specimen I had seen in 2007. The specimen found a place of choice in The Tricottet Collection (Fig. 1).
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 market1. 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 series of five consecutive 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 catalogue 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 in value between the once rare, coveted, Norton County UNM fragments and the newly available 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 (Chain-of-custody of the 11.2g specimen: unk. / M. Oswald / M. Bandli / The Tricottet Collection). Let's say that the "new" specimens have less charisma. Here 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 five (from N.2605 to N.2609) is in both 1965 and 1990 catalogues, N.299 is only referred in the 1965 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.
Lange, D.E., Klaus, K., LaPaz, L. (1980) Catalog of the Meteorite Collection of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico (WANTED)
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., 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. (WANTED)
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
1. It is not only specimens from the Norton County meteorite that were deaccessioned from UNM, but also numerous duplicates of common meteorites (Abbott, Canyon Diablo, Odessa and Wolf Creek) as well as some rare, rather unique specimens (e.g., a multi-source oriented Forest City stone now part of The Tricottet Collection). It even seems that large quantities of material left UNM all at once since it is possible to find on the market specimens with original empty UNM labels! Many of the recent UNM labels therefore seem to have been filled in by meteorite dealers and not by the museum curator.
Created: 4 June 2011 - Last update: 6 July 2013
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 (Helsingin Yliopisto Kivimuseo, HYK). 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 then1 - 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 TC88.12. 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 collectors3. I wondered if the shape of the fragment I had for some years would match the shape of the one I had 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 TC88.22! 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 these St. Michel specimens is that the 2006 seller obtained the original St. Michel specimen from a trade with Tony Nikischer from Excalibur Mineral Corp. in the mid-1990s4. 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 record 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 comes to light, 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. Any information would be highly appreciated.
Borgström, L. H. (1912), Der Meteorit von St. Michel. Bull. Commission Géologique de Finlande, No. 34, Helsingfors, 49 pp., 3 pls.
1. In fact, an Holbrook meteorite pea with painted number from the AMNH was once part of the Tricottet Collection, well before the collection got its official name. It had been purchased in the 1990s but sold around 2000 with all other specimens of the "pre-TC" meteorite collection to a same French collector.
2. This cataloguing method has been abandoned in early 2013.
3. See related write-up Fighting Entropy, or the Life of a Natural History Curator, Historical Investigations, no. 4.
4. As of 2012, the Tricottet Collection counts a Toluca specimen deaccessioned from the Finnish NHM (with original label! and painted number A2388). This specimen is also accompanied by a label from Excalibur Mineral Corp indicating that this dealer traded several specimens with Helsinki.