Historic Crystals

Last update: 23 November 2017

This gallery displays mineral specimens of historical importance, from famous collections, private or institutional, as well as rare mineral collection catalogues. Focus is made on aesthetic crystallised specimens and the place of this natural perfection in the human psyche, such as the geometric mineral forms represented in art. Several sections are still in construction.

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Paige Smith, urban geode project, contemporary art, commissioned by The Tricottet Collection, mineral art

1. The modern era of mineral collecting
Late 20th century
United States of America

Mementos of the J.A. Freilich mineral collection: D. Wilber's 1998 auction card and large-size photograph of selected specimens of the Freilich collection, once built in 2000.

A new mineral connoisseurship: Collecting historic minerals & antique mineral books

If the hobby of mineral collecting declined at the turn of the 20th century, the two following World Wars wiped the remaining collectors, their wealth and social milieu (e.g., Cooper, 2006). We had to wait the 1970s for a global revival. A new type of collection emerged, maybe in nostalgy of the older days, consisting in historic mineral specimens with pedigree, antique dealers' and collectors' labels becoming collectible items in their own right. The few existing label collections of the mid-20th century ended up in forming the basis of the famous Mineralogical Record Label Archive, curated by editor Wendell E. Wilson (1946-). Wilson wrote some of the best books on the history of mineral and mineral book collecting, with the signed and numbered limited editions with leatherette cover themselves highly praised by collectors (Wilson, 1994; 1995) [1]. In parallel, the habit of mineral auctions ceased in the early 20th century after a peak in frequency in the late 19th. It was resurrected in the early 1970s by Sotheby's in London and spectacularly reprised in 2001 with the sale of "The Magnificent Mineral Collection of Joseph A. Freilich" by Sotherby's in New York (Sotheby's, 2001a; b; Cooper, 2006 - see Bonhams, 2007 for the meteorite case). Joseph A. Freilich is a wealthy entrepreneur who assembled in 1998 a remarkable mineral collection with the help of David Wilber, a long-time mineral connoisseur. Wilber became the curator of the celebrated Freilich collection in 1998 and served as Freilich's advisor and purchasing agent for world-class mineral specimens [2]. The Freilich collection is described by again Wilson (2000). For the historian, the Sotheby's catalogue of his library is an important reference. We should finally mention Herbert P. Obodda (1942-), "collector extraordinaire" (White, 2008 - several historic mineral and meteorite specimens part of The Tricottet Collection come from his collection), as well as Jay Lininger (1939-2004) and Lawrence H. Conklin (1933-) who published "Matrix, a Journal of the History of Minerals" (MATRIX, 1988-2004) and other works on the history of mineral collecting (e.g., Conklin, 1986).

Figures: [1] Wilson, 1994; 1996 | [2] J.A. Freilich mineral collection mementos (J.A. Freilich)

Historic synthetic quartz, Western Electric company, Paul Lazar, Ronald Kendig labels, painted inventory collection number

2. English mineral dealers of the 19th century
19th century
England, United Kingdom

Antique wooden box containing 200 mineral specimens (in four trays), arranged by J.R. Gregory. Each specimen retains a label and a glued sticker with typed number.

See also: Ward's Natural Science Establishment

Mineral dealers, from the Derbyshire & Cornwall mining districts to London
Inspired by "Robbing the Sparry Garniture: A 200-Year History of British Mineral Dealers", by M.P. Cooper

Summary coming later.

Figures: [1] Matlock Bath postcards | [2] Systematic mineral collection (J.R. Gregory)

Citrine montage art 19th century, Genova, mirabilia, naturalia

3. Mineral chains-of-custody
19th century & early 20th century

An old English classic pseudomorph of cassiterite after orthoclase from Wheal Coates, St. Agnes, Cornwall, formerly from the Baroness Burdett-Coutts collection.

Historic paper trails: The journey of classic minerals from collection to collection

Summary coming later.

Figures: Cassiterite after orthoclase, Wheal Coates (A.G. Burdett-Coutts) | Malachite after cuprite (L. Cahn / NUM)

Photograph by Johannes Schäfer of a mineral nature morte in the article 'Aus der Naturgeschichte der Kristalle' by Sharff Friedrich in a German scientific journal issue of 1854-1855

4. Early mineral specimens
18th century

Rare pseudomorph of talc after quartz from the classic Gopfersgrun locality in Germany, formerly from the Sir Robert Ferguson (1769-1840) collection.

The earliest surviving mineral specimens

"Many, if not most, early [mineral] collections have not survived [...], fallen prey to fire, war, theft, or the ignorance and apathy of heirs and institutions. Those early collections which were not destroyed have usually been disperser through many later collections, their original pedigrees long since lost" - W.E. Wilson, 1994

The earliest surviving mineral specimens (in fact some ore) are two small chiseled fragments of native silver from Schennberg dating back to 1477 (part of the "Silver Table", in a museum in Dresden, Germany). Although the Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) collection was ultimately acquired by the Natural History Museum of Basle, there is no way to determine which specimens originate from his collection. A number of Wunderkammers of the 16th century were incorporated in later museums but it remains unclear how many can be traced back to the original collector. The John Woodward (1665-1728) mineral collection may be the earliest preserved intact (6,000 minerals in their original wooden cabinets, with original catalogue at Cambridge University). Mineral collecting was in full bloom in the latter half of the 18th century, with increased sophistication and connoisseurship, encompassing both beauty and science. It remains however very difficult to find mineral specimens with an 18th century pedigree in private hands. The Tricottet Collection so far holds one specimen from that period [1], coming from the collection of Sir Robert Ferguson (1769-1840) who had stopped collecting by 1810. His name made it to the "census of mineral collectors 1530-1799" in Wilson (1994). While continuing our journey back in Time, The Tricottet Collection will only have descriptions of older mineral specimens in text or image form.

Figures: [1] Talc after quartz, Gopfersgrun (R. Ferguson) | [2] Early collection catalogues

5. Early mineral collection catalogues
18th century & turn of the 19th century

1773 catalogue of the Romé de l'Isle (1736-1790) mineral collection, with description of his 750 metallic mineral specimens.

Summary coming later.

Figures: [1] Romé de l'Isle, 1773 | [2] Bournon, 1813

6. The oldest mineral collection catalogue
Mid 16th century
The Holy Roman Empire

Coming soon!