A short history of collecting, Part I: Minerals, Gems & Rocks

Last update: 21 July 2018

Mineral collecting has a long written history, with the earliest mineral collection catalogue dating back to the mid-16th century. At first a hobby of the European nobility, especially in mining centers such as Saxony or Cornwall, mineral collecting later became the obsession of wealthy American entrepreneurs. Most of those early collections formed the core of future natural history museums. In the 20th century, mineral connoisseurship continued to evolve, including an interest for mineral specimens with pedigree. All of those stages in the history of mineral collecting are represented below, including Johannes Kentmann's 1565 collection catalogue, specimens from collectors who made it to Wilson's 'census of mineral collectors 1530-1799', and minerals from celebrated private collections acquired by important museums. Other themes related to gems and rocks are considered, such as a glass model collection of historic diamonds, a Baltic amber collection, and a systematic rock collection.
Bibliography: Conklin, L.H. (1986), Notes and Commentaries on Letters to George F. Kunz; 'Matrix, a Journal of the History of Minerals' (1988-2004); Wilson, W. E. (1994), The History of Mineral Collecting 1530-1799; Wilson, W. E. (1995), Mineral Books: Five Centuries of Mineralogical Literature; Cooper, M. P. (2007), Robbing the Sparry Garniture: A 200-Year History of British Mineral Dealers.


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Joseph Freilich mineral collection library Sotheby's, David Wilber bidding card, signed collection catalogue

1. The works of W.E. Wilson, L.H. Conklin & H.P. Obodda on the history of mineral collecting, with examples from the W.W. Pinch Library

Limited eds. on mineral collecting: Signed in 1990s
Crystal model: catalogued in 1880
United States of America

Facsimiles by The Mineralogical Record of the rarest mineral collection catalogues, Museum Richterianum (1743) and Rashleigh's British minerals (1797-1802).

[1] Plagionite crystal (on cork stand, labeled, in glass vial from "Vienna Museum", w. Pinch label), accompanied by the matching crystal model (pear wood, Krantz dealership no. 538);
[2] (i) Hebenstreit, J.E. (1743, 1990 ed.), Museum Richterianum. Min. Rec., Tucson (tan buckram binding, no. 43/50); (ii) Rashleigh, P. (1797-1802, 1994 ed.) Specimens of British Minerals. Min. Rec. (¼ leather; no. 26/75);
[3] Wilson, W.E. (1994, 1995), The History of Mineral Collecting 1530-1799; (ii) Wilson, W.E. (1995), Mineral Books: Five Centuries of Mineralogical Literature (nos. 15, 35, signed);
[4] Conklin, L.H. (1986), Notes and Commentaries on Letters to George F. Kunz... The Tiffany Ed., New Canaan, 137 pp. (black cloth back, marbled boards, paper label on front cover, lim. ed. of 150 copies, unnumbered, inscribed);
[5] Wulfen, X. (1785, 1990 ed.), Treatise on Carinthian lead spars. Short Hills, HP Obodda (leather over marbled boards, no. 12/20).
Provenance: W. Pinch (most books with Pinch blind stamp)

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 with a trend towards historic specimens and associated documentation, exemplified here with examples taken from the library of William W. Pinch (1940-2017), a well-known mineral collector [1] (Feinglos, 2017): The Mineralogical Record published facsimiles of the rarest collection catalogues [2] and its editor Wendell E. Wilson (1946-) also wrote extensively on the history of mineral collecting (Wilson, 1994; 1995) [3]. Lawrence H. Conklin (1933-) co-published 'Matrix, a Journal of the History of Minerals' (1988-2004) and other works on the history of mineral collecting (e.g., Conklin, 1986) [4]. Finally, Herbert P. Obodda (1942-), "collector extraordinaire" (White, 2008) extensively traded with museums and also published collectible facsimiles from his library of rare mineral books [5].

glass models of famous diamonds, Shah, Pasha of Egypt, Orloff, Polar Star, Sancy, Nassak, Florintine, Grand Mogul, Kohinoor, Piggot, Hope, South Star, Regent, Empress Eugénie

2. A gem book dealer's archive on the John Sinkankas Library, its sale & the making of 'Gemology, An Annotated Bibliography'

Bibliography & related signed in (1990s)
Correspondence: dated 1993-1994
California, United States of America

Part of bookseller Lillian Cole's archive related to John Sinkankas' library and bibliographical work, including signed/inscribed articles and books, letters and ephemera.

[1] (i) Sinkankas, J. (1955), Gem Cutting, A Lapidary's Manual. D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 413 pp.; (ii) Sinkankas, J. (1959) Gemstones of North America. D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 675 pp.; (iii) Ephemera from the celebration of Sinkankas' 85th birthday (all inscribed to L. Cole);
[2] (i) Dirlam, D.M., etal. (1989), The Sinkankas Library. Gems & Gemology, Spring 1989, pp. 2-15, (in journal, signed by all authors; bound offprint ed. signed by Sinkankas); (ii) Sinkankas, J. (1993), Gemology, An Annotated Bibliography. Scarecrow Press, 2 vols., 1179 pp.; (iii) Ephemera on the acquisition of the Sinkankas Library by the GIA and correspondence from Sinkankas to Cole (1993-1994), regarding the bibliography;
[3] (i) Sinkankas obituary; (ii) Sinkankas Symposium issues (signed by authors);
[4] Lillian Cole's 'Rare Book Notes 101' (inscribed), accompanied with H. Polissack memorabilia.
Provenance: L. Cole archive (2016)

John Sinkankas (1915-2002), self-trained lapidary, began cutting gems in 1947 and ultimately excelled in faceting large gemstones, some of which ended up in the Smithsonian Institution (Sinkankas, 1955; 1959) [1]. Sinkankas' personal library of some 14,000 books, reprints, pamphlets, illustrations, including virtually all the major works related to the study of gems and jewelry, amassed over some 40 years, were combined with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) library in 1989. A few years later, Sinkankas published his monumental 'Gemology, An Annotated Bibliography', which remains nowadays the main bibliographical reference on the subject [2]. A celebration of Sinkankas' 85th birthday was held in conjunction with the GIA in 2000 [1], just two years before he passed away [3]. As a lasting tribute, the Sinkankas Symposium was established as an annual Symposium, co-hosted by the San Diego Mineral and Gem Society and GIA, featuring experts on precious stones and minerals [3]. This archive [1-3] was built by gem book dealer Lillian Cole, Los Angeles, who wrote the excellent 'Rare Book Notes 101' about her life as a gem book dealer [4].

3. Cornwall minerals from the Sir Arthur Russell meta-collection of minerals: A vitrine to 18th and 19th century Cornwall mineral collecting

Minerals dated (1792-1835), [1875], [1929], etc.
From Cornwall to Swallowfield Park estate, England

Rashleighite, aka Henwoodite, from Wheal Phoenix, Cornwall, dated 1875 back to the collection of Sir W.W. Smyth, via Sir A. Russell, to a 1929 accession by the British Museum.

[1] Olivenite from Wheal Gorland (57 x 38 x 46 mm, with A. Russell label and K. Robertson label no. 5187);
Provenance: Lord de Dunstanville / Lady E.A.C. Hippisley / Sir A. Russell
[2] Pyromorphite from Wheal Rose (77 x 55 x 32 mm, with A. Russell label);
Provenance: J. Lavin / Baroness A.G. Burdett-Coutts / Sir A. Russell
[3] Rashleighite, aka Henwoodite, from Wheal Phoenix (33 x 31 x 27 mm dated 1875 in glass-topped box, with W.W. Smyth label with 1929 British Museum stamp on the back, A. Russell and K. Robertson labels).
Provenance: Sir W.W. Smyth / Sir A. Russell / British Museum

Sir Arthur Russell (1878-1964), the greatest British mineral collector of the 20th century, was also a collector of mineral collections. He absorbed a substantial number of collections into his own, some dating back to 1800 or earlier. Among the more important, and represented here, were the collections of Lady Elizabeth Coxe Hippisley (1760-1843) [1], Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) [2], or Sir Warington W. Smyth (1817-1890) [3]. Russell painstakingly made hand-lettered labels that included the pedigree of his mineral specimens, providing a precious vitrine of Regency and Victorian mineral collecting, which would have been lost otherwise. Russell did not only include the previous collector but also dates (e.g., 1875 [3]) or even earlier collectors giving us a glimpse on the collector's network (e.g., the Baron de Dunstanville (1757-1835) [1] or John Lavin (d. 1856) [2]). On his death in 1964, he bequeathed his superb collection (about 12,000 specimens) to the British Museum (Natural History) (BM), together with storage cabinets, maps, notes and many books, on condition that it would not be sold but would be kept in perpetuity as a British regional collection. Only duplicates from the Russell collection were ever deaccessionned from the BM or specimens purchased or traded earlier with Russell [3].

4. The Baltic Amber trade: Amber collected, arranged & sold by Staatliche Bernsteinwerke (later Staatliche Bernstein-Manufaktur) Königsberg

Amber collection dated [1921]
Königsberg, Weimar Republic

Polished slabs of Baltic amber showing a large spectrum of colours, part of our 1921 Staatliche Bernsteinwerke Königsberg / M. Behr Special Collection (SBMB).

[1] Large collection of Baltic amber (some in natural state, others cut and polished; in antique black pine case, arranged in labelled boxes, inventory number penned on each specimen); accompanied by sales correspondence: (i) letter from Behr to Staatliche Bernsteinwerke, enquiring about Baltic amber (handwritten, 2pp., in German, dated 15 Nov. 1921); (ii) anwser from Staatliche Bernsteinwerke (typed, 1p., dated 29 Nov. 1921) and Invoice to Behr (same date, 1 handwritten list of specimens, 1 typed half-page invoice with total price only, accompanied by SBM envelope); (iii) Price list (handwritten, 2pp.); (iv) Newspaper article titled 'Etwas über Bernsteingewinnung und verarbeitung' (1p.);
Provenance: Staatliche Bernsteinwerke Königsberg (sold to Dr. Med. M. Behr, Kiel, 1921)
[2] (i) Baltic amber box (132 x 88 x 38 mm, 172 grams, SBM metallic label); (ii) 3 unworn rings (18 mm diameter, with their original tags).
Provenance: Staatlichen Bernstein Manufaktur

Full description coming later.

WANTED: Erichson, U. (1998), Die Staatliche Bernstein-Manufaktur Königsberg : 1926 - 1945.

Arthur Flagg mineral ore collection, tin from Durango, wood tin, tin bar, laboratory sample from Cassiterite, early 20th century with labels

5. A "Neudorf" part of the C.S. Bement collection of minerals purchased by J.P. Morgan & donated to the American Museum of Natural History

Mineral dated (-1901-)
From Philadelphia to New York City, USA

Siderite and Galena from Neudorf (Harz, Saxony, Germany) deaccessioned from the AMNH in 1980 and originally part of the C.S. Bement collection, purchased by J.P. Morgan in 1901 and presented as a gift to the AMNH.

[1] Siderite and Galena from Neudorf (9.5 x 7.5 x 6 cm, AMNH no. 8114 with AMNH label and copy of AMNH-Bement card with no. 855); accompanied by Gratacap (1912) and a postcard.
Provenance: C.S. Bement / J.P. Morgan / AMNH (deaccessioned to H. Obodda, 6 Mar. 1980)

Clarence S. Bement (1843-1923), one of the greatest American mineral collectors of all time, built his collection over a period of 35 years, until the wealthy financier John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) purchased it in 1901 to present it as a gift to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Made of some 12,500 specimens, Bement's collection forms the nucleus of both the mineral and meteorite collections of the AMNH [1]. The quality of the Bement collection is best summarized by curator Louis Pope Gratacap (1850–1917):

"The Bement Collection [...] in the quality of its contents, the average beauty, in some cases, the unique perfection of its specimens, secures a deserved eminence [...] It represents the sifted and compressed results of a lifetime of collecting, in which the widest latitude of liberal appraisement of specimens has been met on the part of Mr. Bement [...] Its present position in the [AMNH] is of incomparable value to all students and collectors and dealers. It is placed in a central, accessible, and finely equipped stadium [1c]. It can all be seen, well seen, and seen at all times. Emerging from the privacy of a collector's study [...] it is now installed under favorable circumstances for visitors of all grades and qualifications. Mr. Bement has furnished investigators with abundant material, and his friends, who were the leading students of this subject, have had only too many occasions to praise his hospitality and liberal use of his scientific treasures. But from the nature of the case a collection housed in drawers is quite differently related to the community of mineralogists from a collection placed in a public hall [...] under unexceptionable circumstances of light and access" - Gratacap (1912)

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

6. Systematic mineral & rock collections "named and arranged" by James R. Gregory

Collections dated (1866-1895)
London, Great Britain

Systematic Great Britain rock collection of one hundred specimens, in antique wooden box with two trays, arranged by famous mineral dealer James R. Gregory (1832-1899).

[1] Collection of one hundred rock specimens (in antique wooden box with two trays and large J.R. Gregory label, each specimen also with J.R. Gregory label);
Provenance: J.R. Gregory
[2] Collection of two hundred minerals (in antique wooden box with four trays, each specimen also with J.R. Gregory label);
Provenance: J.R. Gregory

Full description coming later.

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

7. St Andreasberg Feuerblende from an 1839 Heuland sales to a series of famous collections (COMING IN FALL 2018)

8. Gopfersgrun Steatite from the Sir R. Ferguson collection, kept in a sealed room of his ancestral family house between 1840 and the 1990s

Mineral dated -1810)
Ancestral Ferguson family house, Kirkaldy, Scotland

Rare pseudomorph of talc after quartz (Steatite) from the classic Gopfersgrun locality in Germany, formerly from the Sir Robert Ferguson (1769-1840) collection, featured in the 2012 'Pseudomorphosen' issue of extraLapis.

[1] Steatite, or pseudomorph of talc after quartz from Gopfersgrun, Bavaria, Germany (cabinet size, 97 x 80 x 60 mm, with two labels from Sir R. Ferguson, one loose and one glued on specimen);
Provenance: Sir R. Ferguson (collection dispersed in London, acquired by R. Lavinsky, 1998)
References: extraLapis (2012:47)

"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

With this quote in mind, it is difficult to find mineral specimens once part of collections formed by the early collectors that made it to Wilson's 'census of mineral collectors 1530-1799' (Wilson, 1994). This is unfortunate since mineral collecting was in full bloom in the latter half of the 18th century, with increased sophistication and connoisseurship, encompassing both beauty and science. We observe two cases for such specimens to have survived as far as the 21st century, along with their pedigree: (1) they must have passed through the hands of collectors who understood the importance of chain-of-custody recording and whose collections were of sufficient significance to be later conserved intact. This is the case of the Sir Arthur Russell metacollection where we find a Cornwall Olivenite from the Lord de Dunstanville (1757-1835) collection. (2) An other possibility is that the 18th century collection survived intact by being forgotten from all for centuries. This is the case of the collection of Sir Robert Ferguson (1769-1840), which remained in a sealed room of the ancestral Ferguson family house in Kirkaldy, Scotland, until it was reopened in the 1990s [1]. While continuing our journey back in Time, we will only have descriptions of older mineral specimens in text or image form.

Earliest mineral collection catalogue 1565, Johannes Kentmann, Catalogvs Rerum fossilivm, Conrad Gessner, library of Franciscus Rassius Noens, signed 1566