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Greed is the thing with feathers: inside the world of natural history thieves

Book of the Week: Matt Vance reviews an investigation into “the freaks, maniacs and the greed-addled madmen” who obsessively collect, plunder and steal bird specimens.

What is it about birds and obsessives? Birds, like no other animal, seem to bring out the freaks, maniacs and the greed-addled madmen of infinite detail.

In June 2009, Edwin Rist, a 20-year-old American flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, broke into the Natural History Museum and pulled off one of the most ill-conceived yet successful robberies of recent history. He absconded with 299 bird skins to satisfy an obsession – not of birds, but of their feathers and their use in the arcane Victorian art of fly-tying. The Feather Thief is Kirk Wallace Johnson’s account of this odd crime and the unsettling aftermath.

The crime serves as a kind of conduit to a dark world, described by the author: “Little did I know that my pursuit of justice would mean journeying deep into the feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, cokeheads and big game hunters, ex-detectives and shady dentists. From the lies and threats and rumours and half truths, revelations and frustrations, I came to understand something about the devilish relationship between man and nature and his unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost.”

Part of Johnson’s story looks into the history of collectors. They include the great 19th century naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, his cloak glowing brighter with the distance of age. His humility and natural inquisitiveness are a beacon among the fussy bullshit of the scientific community. He’s introduced to us in his darkest hour, aboard the burning ship Helen as he bolts to his cabin to nab his watch and a handful of sketches before abandoning ship. His notes, and 10,000 bird skins, plants, fish, beetles and four years of gruelling work in the stinking heat of the Amazon, all go up in smoke. Anyone else would have given up. Wallace boxes on.

From the heights of likeable Wallace, it’s all downhill. The list of not so nice obsessives is started off with Walter Rothschild, the black sheep of the wealthy banking dynasty, who amassed the largest private collection of bird skins ever acquired by a single person. It was collectors like Rothschild who inadvertently fuelled the fashion of wealthy Victorian women to wear feathers in their hats. Johnson writes, “Women in America and Europe clamoured for the latest plumes: entire birds skins were mounted on hats so ostentatiously large that women were forced to kneel in their carriages or ride with their heads out the window.” The resulting demand nearly brought several species of exotic bird to extinction.

Edwin Rist

Rothschild’s plunder provided the basis for the Natural History Museum’s collection, which over a century later, through lack of any meaningful security or even a workable stocktake, would allow Edwin Rist to climb through a window and fill a suitcase of rare bird skins before escaping by train back to London. As far as heists go, it was delightfully amateurish. He even had a file on his computer desktop that was titled “PLAN FOR MUSEUM INVASION.”

It’s around the start of the third section of the book that the story begins to transition from an expertly woven history to a work of investigative journalism. Also, Johnson firmly inserts himself into the plot. Surprisingly enough he appears to be another obsessive – not of the bird collecting or fly-tying kind, but of hopeless causes. When Johnson first hears of the heist he’s running a foundation committed to helping Iraqi refugees to obtain visas to the US. It’s a losing battle in a country that sees these people as the enemy. Trying to track down bird skins from a fly-tying community that is darker and tighter than a human trafficking ring is only slightly less hopeless. He fights the odds with his own version of obsession.

To read this book is to get a strong hint that humanity is doomed by our stupidity and greed. It’s sometimes said that obsessives are the ones that drive humankind on to great heights. Like Alfred Russel Wallace and the studious staff of the Natural History Museum, Johnson is one of the noble obsessives. Against all odds he’s trying to make the world a better place and he marks the taxonomic division between the obsessives who give to the world and the tweakers, fly-tyers and feather filchers who take. The birds – and indeed the world – needs more obsessives like the author.


The Feather Thief: Beauty Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson, $38) is available at Unity Books.


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