by Robert Verish

Guest Editorial:
Museums Are Selling-off Their Collections!


An article by the editor of Mineral News in response to an article in that publication that was originally published in May, 2005

In my June and August 2005 Bob's Findings articles I transcribed a series of articles about the hobby of mineral collecting which originally appeared in the monthly newsletter, Mineral News. In the interim the editor of Mineral News (Mitchell Portnoy) has published an editorial which goes into more detail regarding the recent practice - by certain museums - of "selling-off" historical mineral [?meteorite?] collections. Given the impact that this would have on the meteorite collecting community should this practice become widespread, it is only fitting that my article this month be a continuation of this subject.

My article this month is a transcription of that "editorial":

*************************************************** Aug05Min-News

Mineral News August 2005


Sale of Important Mineral Collections by Museums

The unfortunate selling-off of historic mineral collections by institutions entrusted with their care is not limited to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Reader Karl-Heinz Russ has graciously provided the following translation that tells the story of a German museum sadly disposing of material, and like the Academy, seemingly under a cloak of secrecy.- Editor of Mineral News

 

In recent statements and letters to editors appearing in mineral as well as science magazines, the sale of important specimen was announced and decried, depending who had been asked [Mineral News Vol.21, #, June 2005 and prior issues].

Now a similar case to that of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences has occurred in Germany as reported by Thomas Kirnbauer in AUFSCHLUSS Vol. 56, # 3, May/June 2005. His article documents sales of large parts of the historical mineral collection of the Forschungsinstitut and Naturmuseum Senckenberg Frankfurt (Germany). In the years 2002 - 2004, a huge number of specimens, consisting mainly of minerals collected in the 19th century, has been sold. In respect to science, history and cultural history, they represent precious collectibles. The fact of this sale was acknowledged in a letter to the editor by Prof. Steininger, the director of the Senckenberg Museum which appeared in a LAPIS issue in Nov. 2004. According to Steininger, the sale had a minor impact on the total holdings but he refused answers as to the specific number of specimen sold and the money being made. Subsequent research by the media and people trained in the mineral-field revealed, that at least half of the holdings had been put up for sale and have since been sold, presumably far below their historical value.

It is known the museum cared for up to 20,000 mineral specimens in 2000 and sold by their own account about 2,560 of them but it is estimated this number is more likely in the range 9,700 - 12,000 pieces. In a report in the daily newspaper Bild [in a sense like the National Inquirer] it was stated, the sale of the mineral specimens of the Senckenberg Museum yielded 98,000 [about $117,600] which would translate, over a three year period, to a small percentage of the the yearly operating budget of the Senckenberg Museum.

It is up for debate whether the museum could sell specimens in the first place but at least in one case they appear to have violated the will of a donor [Mr. Pfeiffer-Belli] since hundreds of pieces came to market within the last few months. On eBay, gold specimens from locations in Romania were sold for 590 on November 18, 2004 originating from the Pfeiffer-Belli bequest. Mr. Steininger claims [LAPIS 29, Nov. 2004] the museum has sold only specimens of lower quality and species numbering up to ten "of the same".


Experts agree that it is exceedingly difficult to follow the trail of a sale of mineral specimens but as Prof. Kirnbauer states in his article the sale of more expensive pieces can be reconstructed. If a single piece costs over about $1,200, then it may be tracked. From the Senckenberg collection a tellurobismuthite specimen/Cumberland; sylvanite/Romania; antimonite crystal/ Japan; amethyst crystals/ Romania; manganite/Germany; azurite/Bisbee; and a rather large group of diamonds were sold. (The sale to a US collector of this diamond collection was denied by Mr. Steininger but has since been proved during a TV-show on November 19, 2004 when some of the diamonds were shown. See figure 1).

Figure 1.

The documented sale of these few specimen alone would amount to about 10% (9,800) of the total value the museum has claimed for all of the sales. At the 2004 Tucson Show, a US dealer offered over a dozen historic manganite-pyrolusite specimens which originated from the Senckenberg museum (figure 2). The operation ran through a dealer living in the Frankfurt region and a Canadian, serving single collectors as well as other dealers worldwide. Meanwhile some specimens were also sold on eBay.

Figure 2. Manganite (12.5 x 6 x 6 cm) with two old labels (below) from the Senckenberg collection.

Although as a matter record the names of those dealers are known, they cannot be revealed because of privacy laws and restrictions therein. For example, the German dealer gave as the provenance for the specimens he sold, "the break-up of a collection in Rostock and Greifswald". But according to Kirnbauer it is clear from the looks of the labels the pieces came from the Senckenberg collection, even when a dealer on the one hand includes very old labels and on the other hand cuts off the lower portion of it to get rid of the name "Senckenberg Museum" (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Modified Senckenberg labels.

At this point in time it is not clear when all this had happened within the museum but Steininger acknowledged in a press release [Focus, 43/2004] "a person with mineralogical-crystallographic training was overseeing the selection of specimen slated for sale". This statement is obviously wrong since the person mentioned above is a geologist by training. It can be assumed he was working on commission which means the more he sold the more he got paid. This constitutes a violation of the conduct published by the International Council of Museums prohibiting so-called insider trading.

During a three-year period presumably 10,000 specimens from the old holdings of the Senckenberg Museum, some pieces dating back to 1810, were scattered to the wind and all historic information may now be lost. Those minerals have been in the true sense squandered since they were sold far below their market value.

In the meantime a district attorneys office is investigating because one of the persons revealing the mess at the Senckenberg received a threatening letter.

 

This article from AUFSCHLUSS by Professor T. Kirnbauer was summarized and translated by KH Russ, 714 Valley Rd. Brooktondale, NY, 14817, with the full support of Prof. Kirnbauer.

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The above article was originally published in the monthly periodical Mineral News in August, 2005.

 


REFERENCES:

British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes by Martin Bailey from his April 03, 2002 article published in Forbes.com.

ROBERT S. PEABODY Museum of Archaeology published in 2002 ROBERT S. PEABODY MUSEUM News.

Debt ridden Milwaukee museum selling off collection by Alice Maggio from her July 26, 2003 post published in That Rabbit Girl.

Debt ridden Milwaukee museum selling off collection by Robert Z. Pearlman from his April 07, 2005 article published in Space.com.


The article REFERENCED above, is courtesy of Mineral News:
Mineral News was founded some twenty years ago by Lanny Ream of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, author of the book "Idaho Minerals". Over the years, it developed a following of avid mineral collectors seeking timely information about new finds and other items of interest to the collector community.

With the purchase of Mineral News by Excalibur Mineral Corp in 2003, the monthly newsletter has expanded to sixteen pages a month, revitalized its look by improving paper and print quality, and it has added significant features such as frequent book reviews, photographs to supplement new mineral descriptions and a greater focus of articles directed to descriptive mineralogy.


My previous articles can be found *HERE*

For for more information, please contact me by email: Bolide*chaser