Saturday, March 6, 2010

Philadelphia Academy's Maryland Mineral Suite Comes Home

I find myself coming up with words like "heinous" and "ignominious," when contemplating how for more than 50 years the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia ignored and neglected a significant national treasure that happened to be its mineral collection . Over that period, a fair number of the 30 thousand plus specimens therein had decomposed, were pilfered, or crashed into one another amidst rotting storage facilities. Finally, in the early part of the "aught" decade, the Academy decided to sell. John White, former Curator of Minerals at the Smithsonian, wrote in a subsequent digital commentary, that the Academy's then president "was dazzled by dollar signs." The sale took place in 2007.

With no other museum able to afford to purchase so vast and important a collection, it ended up in the hands of two prominent high end mineral dealerships, namely Collectors Edge and Cristalle. Both entities have long been highly regarded and well respected by pretty much the entire gamut of players in the mineralogy arena. Their stewardship and disposal of the Philadelphia Academy collection has lived up to that reputation. Various "suites" of minerals sorted according to locality were kept together and offered for purchase to museums and other potentially appropriate custodial sources. The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, for instance, purchased the entire Pennsylvania suite of over 400 flats.

The collection had a vastly smaller Maryland suite, in which no educational institution or museum demonstrated interest, perhaps because few of the Maryland specimens rated as "eye candy." That was fine with Marylander Fred Parker, to whom vintage minerals had just as much appeal. After making inquiries that were followed by words on his behalf from friends, Parker ultimately received a phone call from Steve Behling of Collectors Edge.

Negotiations were simple and quick. With low demand, the price was right, and Parker accepted Behling's offer without a haggle. Arrangements were made for delivery and transfer at the 2008 East Coast Gem and Mineral Show in West Springfield, Massachusetts.

Since bringing the suite home, Parker has kept it completely intact. The best pieces fill the case by which he stands in the picture (at top)/ He keeps the others in two flats next to it.

"The labels," he notes ( meaning additional labels accompanying the Academy's labels), "are a who's who of the important mineralogy people of the 1800's." The names include Gerard Troost (1776-1850), William Jeffries (1820-1906), and Horace Hayden (1769-1844). On the label next to the smoky quartz crystal at left, the early collector's name (George Carpenter (1802-1860) has disintegrated away. The locality, Frederick County, with no information as to exactly where in Frederick County, is still legible. That's how it was in the 1800's Fred explained to me. The labels back then were less specific about localities than they are today.

Another mineral from the suite that especially impresses Parker is a magnetite crystal from Harford County that's just short of two inches in diameter. He also particularly likes, more for its unusual combination of minerals than appearance, a specimen of sphene with tabular apatite crystals and plates of hematite.

Credit Fred Parker for preserving a meaningful and pertinent part of history that would otherwise have been lost. This vintage suite of minerals not only chronicles the evolution in Maryland of a scientific field of study, it tells us what the State is made of.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for preserving the Maryland part of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences mineral collection. In the post, the name Gerard Troost is mentioned. If any one is interested in learning more about this early American geologist go to this link:

    Some of his collection is on display at the Louisville Science Center in Kentucky. It is located in the gem hallway in the Discovery Gallery and specimens at that limestone cave exhibit. Note the mineral specimens are not identified as belonging to Troost though.